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August 03, 2017

Attorney General Jeff Sessions attends a meeting on Capitol Hill. (Getty Images/Mark Wilson)

The Trump administration wants to investigate discrimination against Asian-American college applicants. The Justice Department is reopening an investigation into a complaint that was filed against Harvard accusing the Ivy League school of racial discrimination in its admissions practices.

A coalition of more than 60 organizations accuses Harvard of holding Asian-American applicants to higher standards than black and Latino applicants.

“If one group of students are held to higher standards based on their appearance, that’s not right,” said Swan Lee of Brookline, Mass., an organizer of the coalition.

The group asked the federal government to investigate two years ago, but the Obama administration dismissed the claim without evaluating its merit because a similar lawsuit had already been filed in federal district court.

That lawsuit is pending and could be the nation’s next test case on affirmative action.

But now the Trump administration says it will look into whether Harvard’s practices break the law.

The announcement comes after an internal job posting at the Justice Department appeared to signal a shift in priorities of the Civil Rights division toward complaints of reverse discrimination.

The posting was first reported in The New York Times, but the Justice Department says it’s not looking at university admissions in general.

A spokesperson says the Department is “committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination.”

Civil rights groups and legal experts are skeptical.

“It seems entirely consistent with President Trump’s campaign rhetoric,” says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a constitutional law professor at Harvard. Brown-Nagin points out that the Trump administration’s decision to target affirmative action policies comes as racial tensions are rising on many campuses.

“On the one hand, you have racial minorities, immigrants who are concerned about certain dynamics on campus,” she says. “On the other hand, you have conservatives who feel like their voices are being shut down in debates over things like affirmative action and immigration and sexual assault.”

Brown-Nagin predicts that the Justice Department’s move may not have legs because the Supreme Court has already upheld affirmative action. Last summer, the Court ruled that the University of Texas-Austin can consider race as one factor among many in college admissions.

“Universities should theoretically have the data to support their lawful use of race in admissions. However, marshaling that data in the face of scrutiny of the Department of Justice is quite another thing.”

PRI's The TakeawayBrown-Nagin discusses the legal and political aspects of the administration's focus on affirmative action

In a statement, Harvard says its policy complies with the law, and it is committed to enrolling diverse classes of students.

Opponents of affirmative action like Swan Lee hope the Department’s decision to investigate Harvard will resurrect discrimination complaints against other Ivy League schools.

“I personally feel a wave of fresh of air,” said Lee.

Lee moved to the US from China as a graduate student 20 years ago and is now the mother of two teenagers who will soon be applying to college.

Regardless of the outcome, she says, she's encouraged that the Justice Department will at least take a fresh look.

“As a first-generation immigrant, I get a taste of the American experience,” she said. “Even though your voice is small, if you pluck up the courage and speak up, maybe one day you will be heard by somebody.”

While the Justice Department takes up the investigation, Harvard says it’s about to welcome its most diverse freshman class this fall. For the first time in its 381-year-old history, the country's oldest college accepted a majority of nonwhite students.

Commentary: WGBH's Callie Crossley says the Trump Administration's attack on affirmative action is taking us back to the 1960s.

Earlier: Is Harvard Showing Bias Against Asian-Americans? 

WATCH: Is the Justice Department Turning Back the Clock?

increasing access and success, Donald Trump, affirmative action, Harvard

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