In the past week, the Trump administration threw its weight behind two frontal assaults on flagship liberal social policies. First, as the New York Times reported on Tuesday, Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department will scrutinize affirmative action in higher education with the aim of gutting policies that it sees as discriminating against white or Asian applicants. Second, Trump gave a press conference endorsing a Senate bill, co-sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, that would significantly reduce legal immigration into the United States.
The media has mostly treated these two stories as distinct and unrelated, except insofar as they both represent the Trump Administration’s consistently right-wing approach to racial issues. In reality, the relationship goes much deeper than that. Mass immigration, and America’s proliferating racial and ethnic categories generally, represent the most vexing issue for proponents of race-based affirmative action, which was of course invented in a far less diverse country and aimed specifically at remedying the country’s enslavement and oppression of native blacks, but now arguably discriminates against a different minority group. Meanwhile, affirmative action for ethnic minorities likely heightens white resistance to mass immigration due to the perception that newcomers won’t only compete with natives for finite resources but will get a head start in that competition. If affirmative action goes down, it will be in no small part due to the influence of mass immigration; if immigration levels are slashed, the pervasiveness of affirmative action will probably have played a role.
In his 2003 book Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America, the late USC historian Hugh Davis Graham traced the complicated and overlapping history of these two hot-button social policies in the wake of the 1960s rights revolutions that birthed them. Initially, immigration reform and affirmative action seemed philosophically consistent with one another: Equality under the law meant that the U.S. shouldn’t choose which immigrants to admit based on their ethnicity; it also meant blacks who only just forced Jim Crow’s boot off their necks deserved help getting back on their feet.
The new immigration and affirmative action policies contributed to a small-scale political realignment. “Before 1960, the nation’s leading African-American organizations (such as the NAACP) and labor organizations (such as the AFL-CIO) … opposed large-scale immigration as threatening to native American wage levels and job security,” Graham writes. “After 1970, however, these positions softened, partly because the growth of affirmative action programs with minority preferences broadened the coalition base for protected classes. Increasingly during the 1980s and 1990s, the civil rights and immigration expansionist coalitions meshed their coalition lobbying.” In other words, blacks made common cause with ethnic immigration lobbies not only because of a shared abstract commitment to anti-racism but because they felt it would strengthen their bargaining position in a system where all nonwhites could benefit from affirmative action.
For the first decade and a half after the Civil Rights Act—while racial preferences were seen as primarily a benefit for blacks, and the post-1965 immigration wave hadn’t yet significantly altered the country’s demographics—the two programs coexisted without conflict. But it wasn’t long before contradictions began to emerge. “Mass immigration brought increasing pressures on both the logic and structures of affirmative action,” Graham writes. Stories (not necessarily representative, of course) surfaced of wealthy Cuban-Floridians winning government set-asides for their lucrative businesses. “During the 1990s, controversy over immigration levels … stimulated fresh debate over the definition of racial and ethnic minorities and the reasons and consequences for awarding government benefits on the basis of ancestry.” Especially when the economy was weak, conservative arguments that such programs were practically unfair and theoretically impossible to justify got more and more traction.
What will be the final outcome of the immigration-affirmative action clash? Graham’s assessment in 2003 was that “from this three-decade process, immigration emerged greatly strengthened and affirmative action significantly, perhaps even mortally weakened.” Affirmative action is perhaps even more vulnerable today than it was 14 years ago, especially because a fissure has now emerged not just between immigrants and native whites, but within the increasingly large immigrant community: Asian people have mostly lost their claim to disadvantaged minority status over the past two decades, and the Asian community is spearheading lawsuits against campus affirmative action programs that likely reduce their representation in the Ivy League.
Expansionist immigration policy, too, looks weaker than it did in the early 21st century. After all, Donald Trump is President of the United States. And affirmative action has probably played a role in fueling anti-immigration sentiment. Recent polls have shown an uptick in the number of whites who say they are subject to discrimination. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly more likely to say whites face discrimination. People can argue at length about whether and how many whites actually face discrimination, but regardless of the truth of the matter, it seems likely that affirmative action for minorities contributes to this sense of grievance. If fewer whites felt that the system were stacked against them, they would likely be less reluctant to sharing in America’s bounty with people from other countries.
It’s almost certainly a coincidence that the Cotton-Perdue immigration restriction bill was unveiled the day after news broke about Sessions’ anti-affirmative action push. But the social forces and history that made both of these initiatives possible are deeply intertwined. The case against affirmative action was strengthened by decades of immigration and blurring of racial and ethnic categories. Meanwhile, the case for immigration restriction was bolstered by an affirmative action regime that accentuated white skepticism toward newcomers.
My view is that affirmative action may well be abused by some campus administrations, and that lawsuits challenging it should be taken seriously, but that some form of “soft” affirmative action, especially for non-immigrant African Americans, still has value. And I am in favor of restricting less-skilled legal immigration, although I think the Cotton-Perdue bill is too draconian in its current form.
But most of all, I think that liberals who are interested in preserving affirmative action and immigration at all ought to consider stepping back from maximalist—“you’re with us or you’re a racist”—views on these questions. Because the underlying social fact is that mass immigration and widespread affirmative action are deeply in tension, and ultimately set to destroy one another.