The Department of Justice is hiring lawyers to investigate a complaint alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-Americans in its admissions process, a sign that the agency is turning its attention to colleges' affirmative action policies.
The department issued a statement Wednesday in response to a New York Times story, which had claimed the DOJ was planning to sue colleges over discrimination against white students.
"Press reports regarding the personnel posting in the Civil Rights Division have been inaccurate. 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," DOJ spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement.
"This Department of Justice has not received or issued any directive, memorandum, initiative, or policy related to university admissions in general," Flores said, calling the Times story "inaccurate."
The complaint that the DOJ plans to investigate, which was filed in 2015, included a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups who said that Harvard imposed quotas on admissions of Asian students. The complaint was dismissed that year by the Education Department in 2015 because a similar lawsuit against Harvard had been filed in federal court.
That suit, which was filed by the anti–affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, is still working its way through federal court.
Conservatives have typically argued that affirmative action hurts white applicants. Blum helped to bring the landmark Supreme Court case Fisher v. Texas, an affirmative action case in which the plaintiff was a white woman. But in recent years, activists have turned their focus to Asians, who typically must have higher grades and test scores to be admitted to elite colleges than applicants of any other race.
"It's the most prominent of the affirmative action cases, the one that's galvanized the most debate and discussion," said Edward Blum, an anti–affirmative action lawyer, of the Harvard discrimination lawsuit. "That lawsuit is specifically about Asian quotas — it has nothing to do with white students."
Blum, who orchestrated both the suit against Harvard and Fisher v. Texas, has said that the case for discrimination against Asians is the most compelling argument against affirmative action.
But some Asian-American groups have alleged that cases like the one against Harvard simply use Asian students as a wedge in a longstanding campaign to dismantle broader affirmative action policies, which generally give a leg up to black and Latino students.
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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