NEW HAVEN — The U.S. Department of Justice’s efforts to remove race as a factor in college admissions is part of a wider campaign to dismantle affirmative action, according to advocates of the longstanding policy.

And local admissions officers say considering race and ethnicity in an application helps create a diverse student body, which benefits the university, the student and society as a whole.

On the other hand, Edward Blum, president of the group that lost a suit against Harvard University, said affirmative action is “fuzzy concept” that should be used only to assist those who are at a socioeconomic disadvantage.

On Thursday, the Justice Department notified Yale University that it considered Yale to be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. Colleges must comply with Title VI in order to receive millions of dollars in federal funds.

However, John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said Friday the group supports racial considerations in admitting college students because, like other ethnic groups, “Asian Americans benefit from affirmative action. It’s a myth that Asian Americans oppose affirmative action. The evidence does not support discrimination against our community.”

Yang’s group sided with Harvard in the lawsuit brought by Asian American students who had been rejected from the university. “For us the telling point about this investigation and this letter is the fact that the Department of Justice’s ultimate remedy is that race should not be used in the college admission process.”

That would be unfair to Asian Americans as well as to other groups, he said. “Race is a defining characteristic.” Not being able to talk about that “really denies a core part of your humanity,” he said.

He said opponents of using race as a factor in admissions seek to drive a wedge between ethnic groups “and trying to somehow suggest that this is not about race and this is somehow about merit. It really is a dog whistle at times to suggest that some people are more qualified than others. … There has been no evidence to show that unqualified applicants are being accepted into these universities.”

A webpage of statistics about Yale’s admissions states that of 1,554 members of the class of 2023 (rising sophomores), half are male and half female, 51 percent identify as members of a minority group, 25.9 percent are Asian American, 15 percent Hispanic and 11.8 percent African American.

Blum said while the courts have allowed the use of race in college admissions, “there are lots of hoops that a university has to jump through before it can use race. … Before a university uses race in its admissions policy to achieve racial diversity, it must use some nonracial means to achieve that diversity,” such as increasing the number of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at Columbia University, said the argument that race should not be considered disregards the different experiences of racial groups in the United States, creating “a gross false equivalency.”

“Asian immigrants coming to the United States are extremely highly educated,” and more educated than Asians who have not immigrated, she said. “They’re also more significantly highly educated than the U.S. mean.”

Affirmative action was developed as “a policy to restore racial justice to the descendants of slaves,” she said. “When these cases came before the Department of Justice during the Obama administration, they were not even taken seriously.” The investigation of Yale is “the first time in our history that the Department of Justice is entertaining these claims in any kind of serious manner.”

John Brittain is a professor in the University of the District of Columbia’s law school, a Norwalk native and someone who has been involved in numerous civil rights cases, including the Sheff v. O’Neill school-desegregation case in Connecticut. He called the Trump policies, carried out by Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr, “very anti-African American, very anti-diversity … and, very frankly, very pro-white.”

Racial diversity is “essential to a sound educational experience,” Brittain said. He said that during a civil rights case, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia asked “what does an integrated classroom have to do with learning physics?” Brittain used as an example the Tuskegee Study, in which Black men were injected with syphilis and left untreated.

“If some of those doctors had gone to school with Black and brown students … they would never want to do that because of their exposure to diversity,” Brittain said.

David Hinojosa, the director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said the Justice Department is using the same argument against Yale that Blum’s group used against Harvard, that only test scores and grades should be considered in admissions. But even with a “more comprehensive analysis” than the Justice Department has used, the group lost.

“The court turned over every stone trying to find any conceivable evidence of discrimination against Asian-American students and white students and they were unable to do that,” Hinojosa said.

Now, the Justice Department is “trying to backdoor these same findings against Yale but in an administrative proceeding. … It indicates that it’s more of a politically motivated stunt than and actual civil rights investigation,” he said.

Hinojosa said relying only on grades and SAT scores, which “have a terrible civil rights history … they were developed by a eugenicist,” is not a good predictor of success in college.

Factors such as race, family structure, geography and extracurricular activities are important to consider as well, he said. If colleges “just have clones of students with high SAT scores, they wouldn’t be producing the leaders who are prepared to work in a more diverse and global economy and workplace.”

Hinojosa said while not every qualified white or Asian-American student will get into a prestigious college, neither will every Black or Hispanic student. And white, male students have the benefit of legacy admissions (having a family member who graduated from the school) and athletic scholarships, more than students of color do.

“It’s a complex issue,” he said. Not to consider race as a factor is “to pretend that we live in a color-blind society where everyone has equal access and opportunity, but that Neverland does not exist.”

Julie Edstrom, interim vice president for enrollment management at Southern Connecticut State University, said admissions officers seek as diverse a class as possible.

“I think students are learning from each other as well as from whatever curriculum or faculty are at any given school, so I do think it’s important to create an environment that is going to open people’s minds.” She called the process of discerning which students to admit “holistic review.”

Because they do not reflect an applicant’s potential well, Southern will make SAT scores optional next year, Edstrom said.

Alick Letang, interim director of undergraduate admissions at Southern, said the university’s mission is about access to as diverse a population as possible.

“It’s that multitude of factors. It’s that academic achievement, it’s the interests, it’s the demonstrated leadership qualities that students will bring from a variety of backgrounds into the classroom,” he said.

Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart issued a statement Friday night, saying, “Yale’s admissions process is based on a whole-person review of every applicant — all factors are considered in the context of the application and the student as a whole. In evaluating applicants, Yale looks at their backgrounds, their interests and their likelihood to engage with Yale’s community in any number of ways.”

Peart continued, “A student’s racial and ethnic background is one part of a much larger evaluation; it is never the only factor in deciding whether to admit a student. The Yale Admissions Committee is interested in understanding how an applicant would engage with faculty, staff, and peers as a member of Yale’s residential and academic community, and the Committee seeks students who will make positive contributions to the undergraduate student body.”

Connecticut Media Group