Public discussions of racial inclusion and equal opportunity initiatives in the U.S. are often met with claims that expanding access to an institution, space, or public good is likely to diminish its quality. Examples of this pattern include: anticipated (and real) property value declines when predominantly white neighborhoods become more racially diverse; fears that the excellence of white schools will decline when the population of Black and brown students grows; apprehensions that equitable hiring practices necessarily entail lower standards for job candidates. In this paper, we examine how a federal agency, the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), charged with addressing the aftermath of the ‘access wave’ of new college students promulgated by the Higher Education Act of 1965, came to reconcile its commitments to educational equity and quality. Through a novel examination of the historical development of what we term (e)quality politics in the administration of civil rights policy in higher education, we trace how two concepts - equity and quality – became discursively linked and contested in American politics. (E)quality politics refers to the introduction of a policy paradigm that reframes equity discussions and goals around the professed need to preserve and advance institutional “quality” using measures and standards that are, importantly, defined and instantiated under the era of segregation that precedes equal access policies. In particular, we uncover the discursive patterns by which the perceived threats to “quality” posed by racial diversity can prompt administrators to compensate, protect, and maintain the prerogatives of high-status institutions or groups that benefited under previous eras of exclusion. Understood as part of a backlash to egalitarian reforms, we argue, these quality measures undermine equity goals.