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Discrimination against whites was a core concern of Trump’s base

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The Justice Department’s plan to investigate and sue universities over affirmative action admissions policies they determine discriminate against white students represents a shift in the department’s civil rights division. But the move also addresses a central concern for voters who fueled President Trump’s victory last year: that whites are losing out in today’s society.

In the midst of Republicans’ primary contest last year, a Washington Post-ABC News poll asked Americans which is the “bigger problem in this country — blacks and Hispanics losing out because of preferences for whites, or whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics?”

Among the public overall, more people said blacks and Hispanics losing out was a bigger problem than whites by 40 percent to 28 percent. But attitudes were reversed among registered voters who supported Trump against Clinton, with 44 percent saying whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics was the bigger problem, more than twice as said the opposite (16 percent). The margin was even wider among Republican-leaning voters who supported Trump for the party’s nomination — 54 to 12 percent.

A similar dynamic was found in a poll this spring by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, which asked the same question. While 28 percent of the public overall said whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics was a bigger national problem, that rose to 35 percent among those who “approve somewhat” of Trump’s performance and 46 percent among those who strongly approve.

It’s worth noting that a large portion of Trump supporters do not hold the view that whites losing out is a bigger problem than the reverse, with a substantial share who said both are equal problems or that neither are. Even so, analysis of the 2016 survey found this viewpoint was strongly predictive of Republicans’ support for Trump in the party’s primary, on par or greater than the impact of economic experiences.

Here’s how The Post’s Max Ehrenfreund and I described the impact on Republicans’ support for Trump at the time:

The odds that a person who feels strongly that whites are losing out supports Trump are more than three times higher than for a demographically and financially similar person who feels blacks or Hispanics are losing out or that neither group is losing out more. Likewise, the odds a person who says he or she is struggling financially supports Trump are about twice as high as someone who says he or she is comfortable or moving up economically.

The issue of affirmative action hits at the center of those views, with decades of polling finding Americans skeptical of using racial preferences in college admissions.

A 1991 Washington Post-ABC News poll found 22 percent of adults saying “blacks and other minorities should receive preference in college admissions to make up for past inequalities,” while 76 percent said they should not. More recently, a 2013 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found 64 percent opposed giving preference to blacks over whites in college admissions to make up for past inequality.

Those results indicate that the public is uncomfortable with the potential that programs aimed to help racial and ethnic minority students could disadvantage whites. But it also comes despite general support for the goals of such programs and rare personal reports of reverse discrimination.

The same PRRI survey found that 68 percent favored special efforts to help blacks and other minorities get ahead. It also found that only 6 percent of whites think they were hurt in the college admissions process because of their race or ethnicity, a view that is not more common among younger whites.

Separately, a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found 63 percent saying affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on campus were a “good thing.”

Perhaps most strikingly, Trump’s election and the Justice Department’s move to investigate reverse discrimination comes at a time of heightened concern about equality for African Americans. The share of Americans saying the country “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites” rose from 46 percent in Pew surveys shortly before the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to a majority in three surveys since then, including 57 percent last December.

While the shift in federal legal strategy may address long-held concerns about affirmative action programs and concerns about reverse discrimination among Trump voters, it could also feed growing concerns about equal opportunity for racial and ethnic minorities.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.