Once again, the Supreme Court is set to review race-conscious admissions policies, this time those of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Though I don’t favor affirmative action policies, I would argue that both proponents and critics of affirmative action overlook a far more important issue: the failure of America’s K-12 education system, which creates the wide educational disparities affirmative action is intended to remedy in the first place.
Affirmative action came about as we currently know it through a President John F. Kennedy executive order in 1961 requiring federal contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure applicants are employed and that employees are treated without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” By the late 1960s, universities were voluntarily considering race in admissions processes, some going as far as to establish racial admission quotas. This was not the original intent. In the landmark 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that racial quotas violated equal protection rights. However, the court established that higher education had a “compelling interest” in allowing race to be a factor in university admissions to promote diversity in the classroom.
With the case currently before the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, argue that the use of race by Harvard and UNC in their admissions processes gives unconstitutional preferential treatment to applicants from “underrepresented” racial groups — leading to highly qualified students, particularly Asian-American students, being rejected while lesser qualified students are being accepted. This was, of course, not the intent of affirmative action in President Kennedy’s 1961 executive order, but it can be argued that it is an effect. Besides taking away a seat from a student more likely to succeed, it can also be argued that granting admission to lesser qualified students to meet diversity goals can also lead to their struggling or even dropping out of the university. If those students were directed to a post-secondary education they academically qualified for, they would have a greater opportunity for success.
The current Supreme Court case will, yet again, continue the ongoing controversy because affirmative action at universities is merely a symptom of a larger problem: traditional K-12 public education is utterly failing black and Hispanic students in the major urban areas in America where most of them reside. If affirmative action continues in university admission practices while that problem remains unsolved, we will continue to see black and Hispanic students admitted to post-secondary schools for which they may not be qualified or prepared.
For example, in California, from 2015-2019, black and Latino students significantly trailed white and Asian students in math proficiency. Black students had a 20% passing rate, followed by 28% for Latinos, 54% for whites, and 74% for Asians. Reading proficiency over the same period was also a dismal 33% for black students and 41% for Latino students, compared to 65% and 77% for White and Asian students. This achievement gap is consistent across America. Students who significantly trail other students and perform academically below that of basic proficiency are ill-prepared to enter rigorous universities.
Affirmative action will continue its controversial legacy in America’s ongoing struggle for racial progress and equality until all students have access to the quality K-12 education necessary to grant them an opportunity for more comparable levels of educational attainment. Once all students are provided an opportunity to participate in a high-quality, innovative K-12 education system that personalizes learning time, instructional methods, and support, affirmative action (which was always intended to be a temporary measure), will no longer intervene as a misguided solution to closing the achievement gap.
We should all recognize the historical plight of blacks in America, a significant aspect of which continues to be their lack of access to a quality education. But however well-meaning, affirmative action is not the answer. It fails to address the root causes of educational performance disparities, creates an atmosphere of unequal opportunity and protection, and can even have negative effects on the very students who are meant to reap its benefits. We should instead come together and focus our efforts on reforming and redesigning K-12 education. The lasting benefit of a high-quality education for each individual student would transform families, communities, and our country, and would go far to foster racial progress and reconciliation.