The U.S. Department of Justice says it is seeking lawyers to look into a two-year-old complaint alleging discrimination against Asian-American students in a university’s admission policy, dismissing reports that it is launching a broader effort to sue colleges over policies seen as discriminatory against white applicants.

In a statement released late Wednesday, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said a recent announcement by the department’s Civil Rights Division sought volunteers to investigate the complaint by a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups against “a university’s admissions policy and practices.”

The case involves a 2015 administrative complaint filed with the Justice Department and the Department of Education, alleging that Harvard University’s admission policy discriminated against Asian-American applicants.  

The complaint had been “left unresolved” by the Obama administration, Flores said.     

“This Department of Justice has not received or issued any directive, memorandum, initiative or policy related to university admissions in general,” she said. “The Department of Justice is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination.”

Media reports

The New York Times first reported about the announcement Tuesday, saying the Civil Rights Division sought lawyers to investigate allegations of discrimination against white students.  

The Washington Post also reported on the news and cited an unidentified official describing the project as an effort to investigate affirmative action policies that discriminate against white applicants.

Flores called the reports “inaccurate.”

Civil rights advocates who greeted the initial reports with alarm nonetheless remained skeptical about the planned investigation.  

“We reject such attempts to use Asian-American students as a wedge to escalate the fears of those who believe that affirmative action creates an unfair advantage against white or Asian students,” said Brenda Shum of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington.

Separate lawsuit

Harvard is fighting a separate lawsuit filed in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions alleging the university’s affirmative action admission policy discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The group, led by Edward Blum, a fierce opponent of affirmative action, also has sued the University of North Carolina on behalf of a group of white students challenging the school’s admission policies.  

Nicole Ochi, an attorney representing a group of students who filed a brief in the Harvard case, said because of the pending lawsuit, there was “absolutely no need” for the Justice Department to investigate the complaint against Harvard. Though the Justice Department has never sued a college or university over its affirmative action policies, it may choose to join the lawsuit against Harvard, she said.

Affirmative action has long been a divisive issue in the United States. The policy allows colleges and universities to consider race in admitting students and gives minority students an edge over white students. While proponents say it has helped improve diversity on college campuses and given otherwise disadvantaged students a shot at the American dream, critics see affirmative action as reverse discrimination against whites and Asian-Americans.

“You can call it ‘affirmative action’ or you can celebrate ‘diversity” or you can set goals for ‘under-represented minorities,’ but when you consider a person’s skin color in deciding whether to award her an admissions slot or a contract or a job — then you are engaging in racial discrimination,” Roger Clegg, president of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, wrote in a blogpost.  

Deep suspicion

Brian Levin, a professor of law at California State University-San Bernardino, said the civil rights community’s reaction to the reported Department of Justice initiative demonstrated a “deep distrust” of the agency.

“Under this cloud, even a few positive measures within the Justice Department are met with suspicion by many civil rights leaders,” said Levin.

The Justice Department said it remained as committed to protecting civil rights as it was during the Obama administration.

Herman Schwartz, a law professor at American University in Washington, said that while the Justice Department has the authority to challenge a school’s affirmative action policies, it is not likely to succeed in light of recent Supreme Court rulings in favor of affirmative action.  

“They can initiate [litigation] all they want, but the law of the land is that individualized treatment of applicants is appropriate and will not be challenged or should not be challenged, but will pass muster,” he said.

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