The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White Trump voters think they face more discrimination than blacks. The Trump administration is listening.

Abigail Fisher claimed the University of Texas improperly discriminated against her for being white. The Supreme Court ultimately disagreed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

This post has been updated

Trump appointees at the Justice Department will soon launch an investigation of affirmative action programs at the nation's colleges and universities aimed at rooting out alleged anti-white bias, according to documents obtained by the New York Times.

White Americans enjoy considerable advantages in education compared to blacks and Hispanics. White Americans obtain bachelor's degrees at significantly higher rates than blacks or Hispanics. A 2012 Stanford University study found that while whites comprised 60 percent of the nation's graduating high school class in 2004, they accounted for nearly three-quarters of admissions to the nation's most selective colleges. At elite schools, wealthy white families have traditionally used donations and legacy admission preferences to tip the scales in favor of their children.

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."

The Trump administration takes up the cause of oppressed white people

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.