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Lawmakers Want to Know if Sessions Is Going After Affirmative Action

WASHINGTON -- Several Democratic lawmakers want Attorney General Jeff Sessions to explain how departments "intend to approach cases and matters involving systemic civil rights abuses and racial diversity in college and university admissions" after a Justice Department memo showed interest in affirmative action litigation.

The memo obtained by the New York Times said the DOJ was looking for interested attorneys for a project on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” The Washington Post reported that career staffers in the Educational Opportunities Section refused to take on the project, so it was shifted to appointees of President Trump in the DOJ's front office.

The Justice Department said that the posting "sought volunteers to investigate one administrative complaint filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American associations in May 2015 that the prior Administration left unresolved," which involved a lawsuit against Harvard.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told the Associated Press earlier this month that her department wasn't involved with the DOJ memo. "I think the bottom line here is that we want an environment where all students have an opportunity, an equal opportunity to get a great education whether that's at the K-12 level or the higher-ed level," DeVos said. "And it's our goal to see all students have the opportunity to succeed, no matter where they come from, no matter their family background, no matter their family income and that's my goal, that's my personal goal and I know that's the goal of our team here at the department."

In their letter to Sessions today, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Bobby Scott (D-Va.), House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers  (D-Mich.), Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the memo "the latest effort by this Administration to step away from enforcing the protections provided under the Civil Rights Act and instead promote policies that undermine civil rights protections and your Departments’ Civil Rights Offices."

"The Supreme Court has made it clear that racial diversity is a compelling state interest and that it is in our national interest that talented students from a variety of backgrounds get a close look and a fair chance at overcoming obstacles to higher education," they added. "...We have serious outstanding concerns about the Trump Administration’s intention regarding policies to promote racial diversity in university admissions and the scope of work your agencies may be undertaking on this issue. First, there is a discrepancy about the scope of the project. DOJ’s internal job posting asks for applications to assist with 'investigations,' yet the statement from DOJ describes a single 'investigation.' Merely acknowledging one investigation, however, does not rule out the possibility of a more expansive probe now or in the future.  Nor does it explain why it would be taking up an investigation into this 2015 complaint at this time."

The lawmakers called the report of shuffling oversight on the investigations a move that "suggests this is a political maneuver designed to circumvent DOJ operating procedures and career attorneys, and that DOJ may be considering launching an attack on racial diversity and inclusion in higher education."

They also told Sessions they "have a number of questions about [Education Department]’s role in setting Administration policy toward college admissions practices given the importance of racial diversity in higher education and its importance to our nation’s global economy."

"Neither DOJ nor ED have publicly addressed the spate of racially charged incidents on college campuses nor the rise in white supremacist recruiting efforts and incidents on college campuses which the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes as unprecedented. Such incidents include the stabbing of an African American student commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army by a fan of white supremacist websites, or bananas hanging from nooses labeled 'Harambe bait,'" they added. "Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has tracked approximately 250 incidents on more than 150 campuses of distribution of white supremacist flyers since spring of 2016, with nearly 200 of these incidents occurred after the November election."

Lawmakers asked for a response by Sept. 1 to several questions on the memo, the Harvard case and how the department intends to approach affirmative action now.