This post has been updated
The Wall Street Journal reports that the effort is related to a discrimination suit alleging bias against Asian-American students at Harvard. Opponents of traditional affirmative action programs say that they disadvantage white students as well.
Nevertheless, the Justice Department's move will likely be popular among white conservatives who believe that "anti-white bias" is a serious problem in society today. Recent polling underscores the point. A Huffington Post/YouGov survey from last fall, for instance, found that Trump voters believe that whites are more discriminated against than Muslims, blacks, Jews and Latinos.
The survey found that Trump voters were more than twice as likely to say that white Americans (45 percent) faced a lot of discrimination as blacks (22 percent), Jewish people (19 percent) or Latinos (19 percent).
Other research has found that this is a relatively new phenomenon. A 2011 study found that white people believe anti-white bias has worsened over the decades, to the point that they think it's now a more serious problem than bias against blacks. That study opened with a prescient 2009 quote from then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, who will oversee the DOJ's bias investigation as attorney general: "Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another."
That 2011 study concluded that many whites were beginning to see race relations as a zero-sum game: If black Americans' situations are improving, it must be at the expense of whites. Blacks don't see it that way: "Black respondents in our surveys, meanwhile, report believing that outcomes for blacks can improve without affecting outcomes for white Americans," the study authors wrote in The Post last year.
White Americans' zero-sum framing is not supported by data. Across any number of available metrics — income, wealth, education, life expectancy, you name it — white people continue to fare significantly better than their black counterparts. But the Trump administration's move is likely to validate these beliefs, making them strongly and more widely held among Trump's base.
Some progressive groups, like the Century Foundation, have in recent years moved toward supporting income-based affirmative action policies, rather than race-based ones, as a way of defusing the racial tensions around college admissions. A Gallup poll last year found that aside from direct measures of academic achievement (like grades, SAT scores and course selection), economic considerations were the admissions factor most widely supported by members of the general public. Race-based measures were near the bottom of the list.
A conservative administration less steeped in the ideology of white nationalism might have chosen to tackle college admissions from the angle of economics, promoting income-based admissions criteria that many voters across the political spectrum would have a hard time disagreeing with. Instead, by focusing on perceived anti-white bias, the Sessions Justice Department has all but ensured that race and identity will remain at the center of college admissions battles for years to come.
This approach may still backfire: In last year's Gallup poll, nearly two-thirds of respondents said that race should not be a factor in college admissions at all.