Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Trump appointees with white power leanings are not just scaling back federal civil rights protections. They are elevating the defense of white Americans across the government as the nation’s demographics become increasingly diverse.
This startling shift can be seen across many departments, from justice to education to environmental protection to labor. It’s not just top appointees in policymaking posts who have long opposed affirmative action and worked to subvert equal rights for minorities; it’s also emerging civil rights enforcement directives, proposed budgets slashing civil rights lawyers and announcements for new anti-minority agendas.
“This White House initiative represents a dangerous departure from policies and practices that help heal our nation’s racial divisions; instead, it serves as a desperate appeal to the worst fears of those who consciously or subconsciously despise the increasing diversity and shifting power dynamic in America today,” said Edward A. Hailes Jr., managing director and general counsel at Advancement Project’s national office.
This pro-white cant was heard at the White House Wednesday, when Trump and two GOP senators, Arkansas’ Tom Cotton and Georgia’s David Perdue, proposed legislation to make it harder for non-English-speaking foreigners to get green cards making them legal visitors, which Cotton said hurts the working class.
“It [the current immigration system] puts great downward pressure on people who work with their hands and work with their feet,” Cotton said, speaking to Trump’s white base—who often lack higher education but have solid middle-class incomes. “Now, for some people, they may think that’s a symbol of America’s virtue and generosity. I think it’s a symbol we’re not committed to working-class Americans. And we need to change that.”
Trump’s support for cutting legal immigration in half revives his racist campaign attacks on non-whites and national identity. It’s one more sign that suggests his slogan, “Make America Great Again,” actually means “Make White America Great Again.” Another sign came earlier this week when his appointees at the Justice Department, the hub of civil rights enforcement for the past 50 years, announced they were looking to hire lawyers for “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” This revives the anti-white bias issue after the Supreme Court rejected it in 2016, although a longtime white supremacist legal crusader is seeking to revive it in Texas state court.
“DOJ’s active investigation of race-conscious admissions policies is expected to have a chilling effect on those institutions, public and private, committed to pursuing the educational benefits of diversity,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said Wednesday. “AG Sessions is diverting critical resources on a wasteful campaign to recruit DOJ attorneys to dismantle the very policies that helped to level the playing field caused by years of debilitating discrimination.”
But the DOJ announcement did not occur in a vacuum. At the Department of Education, acting civil rights chief Candace Johnson has said the agency will narrow the way it looks at campus-based sexual and racial discrimination cases. Johnson has opposed affirmative action for non-whites since her student days at Stanford University. The agency also wants to eliminate 40 civil rights division posts.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s new leaders want to end its environmental justice initiatives, which serve communities of color. The Labor Department wants to shut its anti-discrimination office.
But the signals coming from the Department of Justice are sweeping, and span a range of areas that suggest appointees with white power leanings have taken the reins. The DOJ is also backing away from consent decrees, which it has used to push local police departments and municipalities to change policies contributing to institutional racism.
DOJ spokespeople would not comment why the department’s new senior appointees want to investigate race-based discrimination at universities. But there are strong clues where that agenda may be coming from, as some of the same people who have urged the DOJ to refocus the Voting Section’s priorities on policing the vote have also sued state universities over lower tuition rates for undocumented students.
In late March, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who Trump appointed as vice chair to a presidential election integrity commission, and several appointees wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging him to purge the DOJ of liberal lawyers and return to “race-neutral voting rights enforcement.”
That means stop suing red states for harsh voter ID laws that have been shown to discriminate against non-whites, and stop suing red states for illegal race-based gerrymanders. States that have lost in federal court to the DOJ include Texas, North Carolina and Alabama (Sessions’ home state). Others appointed to Trump’s election panel include J. Christian Adams, a former DOJ attorney who has long complained that Obama’s DOJ never prosecuted blacks for oppressing white voters.
Kobach’s career has also included the same legal action the DOJ is now looking at in state college and university admissions. Before he got involved in voting rights, he worked with anti-immigrant groups that sued three states that did not charge higher out-of-state tuition rates to Dreamer students. Kobach sueduniversity systems in Kansas, California and Nebraska; his side lost in court.
These efforts by the Trump administration are disturbing on many levels, not just by subverting the historic civil rights mission and achievements of the mid-20th century, but seeking to elevate white Americans by institutionally turning blind eyes to a spectrum of discrimination. Trump’s announcement that he seeks to cut legal immigration in half, especially by limiting the visas granted to family members of lower-wage workers sends another unambiguous message about race and national identity; he is seeking to return America to a more tribal and racially divided era.
“For years, Republicans have made it a priority to vilify immigrants and encourage bigotry and prejudice,” Lizet Ocampo, People For the American Way political director, said. “Let’s be clear: This legislation has absolutely nothing to do with helping our economy and everything to do with playing up the Trump administration’s nativist agenda and boosting support from his base after failing to deliver his campaign promises on health care. President Trump continues to demonstrate that he is willing to abandon our country’s values in order to push his own extreme agenda and score a few political points.”
But it’s not just scoring points. Trump’s White House is putting white power sympathizers in top positions across the government. He’s ignoring history and rolling back the clock by rekindling the same post-Civil War sentiments as when whites lashed out at newly freed blacks and immigrants, declaring the federal government and law was meant to serve white America before all others.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).