Say what you like about progressives in America and their nebulous calls for “racial equity”, but they got one thing right: college admissions have always been a zero-sum game. With limited places at the prestigious universities and tens of millions of applicants, some sort of discrimination in deciding who gets accepted is inevitable. The question is: on what grounds?
Since the Sixties, the answer on campuses from Harvard down has been race-based affirmative action — a policy dedicated to increasing racial diversity on campuses. Until today, that is, when the Supreme Court rejected the practice as unconstitutional.
In the coming days, you will no doubt be treated to a cacophony of views either celebrating the decision as a victory for meritocracy or abhorring it as a racist verdict that exposes the white supremacy inherent in our institutions. What you won’t hear, however, is much discussion about whether affirmative action has realised its intended outcome of raising black Americans, the descendants of slaves and victims of segregation, out of poverty. It is all too easy for a university to boast about having a certain number of black kids on campus. It is much harder to reflect on whether the policy that put them there has succeeded more generally.
While the birth of affirmative action can be traced back to the end of the Civil War, its role in college admissions was only secured by a Supreme Court ruling in 1978. Since then, all affirmative-action policies have articulated the same goal: to make the second-class socio-economic status of black Americans a thing of the past.
In part, this was to be celebrated. In the US, access to college is seen as a prerequisite for success; indeed, those with bachelor’s degrees tend to earn significantly more than those with only a high school diploma: 75% more, according to one recent study. In other words, despite recent cynicism, affirmative action comes from a genuine desire to improve the lives of black Americans.
But have these attempts worked? Although the formal and objective legal and social barriers to black prosperity have been eliminated, and despite the fact that all sorts of other government welfare and criminal justice policies have been adopted since the Sixties, disparities between white and black Americans remain entrenched in wealth, education, housing and crime. One recent study by the Federal Reserves notes, for instance, that black households earn on average about half as much as white households. In fact, black Americans do less well than any other minority groups in America, including other black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa.
As for those black Americans who do get into college, only 42% graduate within six years — well below the national average of 63%. Forgive me for spelling this out, but it bears emphasising: if you are a black college student in America, you are more likely to drop out than graduate.
From a humanitarian point of view, then, one of the key problems with the debate around affirmative action is that it focuses on admissions, and not on the trajectories of students after they are admitted. For a university to enrol a student is, in some ways, easy — in the sense that all it consists of is sending out a formal letter. By contrast, putting the admitted student on the path to graduation and a successful future is more challenging. All of which raises an uncomfortable question: just how fair is it to admit students without considering their ultimate chance of degree completion and the debt load they will be saddled with regardless of whether they graduate? Or, to frame it more constructively: if affirmative action is not the answer to the plight of black America, what is?
To answer this, it pays to compare successful black Americans with those who lag behind. In May 2022, I attended a conference of distinguished black thinkers, including Clarence Thomas, Glenn Loury and Ian Rowe. During the gathering, I identified three main groups of black Americans. The first consists of those who are quietly successful and rarely make the news. Even during segregation, they somehow prospered, and with the abolition of formal racism in America, they thrived.
The second faction is embodied in the Black Lives Matter movement. These people loudly argue that recent racial progress is irrelevant and seek to exploit the history of American racism to further their own radical agenda. They mostly come from affluent families, which is perhaps why they prefer to focus on skin colour rather than economic class as an explanation for why black America remains disadvantaged. This is the group which benefits most from affirmative action policies.
The third grouping is made up of a vast number of poor black Americans. They tend to be wards of the state, in prison, involved in or affected by crime, unemployed or employed in low-paying jobs that are threatened by mass immigration and growing automation. The second group claims to speak for this group’s interests, but in fact exploits their genuine grievances for their own political ends, encouraging poor black Americans to think of themselves as forever doomed to be victims. This inspires a mindset of permanent resentment and does nothing at all to actually inspire them, let alone improve their economic circumstances in an enduring manner.
The other obvious difference is that those in group one tend to come from stable, monogamous families. They largely complete their education before marrying and having children. They cultivate a strong work ethic and are members of strong communities.
The problem is that poor black Americans (group three) live in an environment in which these values are difficult to nourish. They often face an intergenerational cycle of poverty involving fractured families, dysfunctional school systems and financial strain. Young men are forced to look to all the wrong role models to survive, embracing norms that are not compatible with durable socio-economic stability.
When one looks at other demographics, however, one finds that this pattern is not solely racial. The factors outlined above can lock any group of people into poverty, forcing them to live in neighbourhoods where violence is common and education is poor. In such cases, the cycle continues. Think, for example, of the poor white Americans discussed in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, who have ended up in distinct but not entirely dissimilar circumstances.
Besides strong families that nurture habits associated with stability and success in life — literacy, inquisitiveness, a hard work ethic — access to good schools at an early age is essential for remedying the economic disparities. And this is where affirmative action stepped in, no doubt because other factors — such as stable families — were beyond the power of legislators to address.
Seen in this light, affirmative action on its own could never solve the problems of black Americans born into terrible environments, because its operation came too late. It worked in the latter half of the 20th century for those black Americans who came from environments that encouraged high educational attainment, because the only obstacle facing them was formal discrimination based on skin colour. But it could not work for those who came from less auspicious backgrounds. If you were poor, it was never going to be enough.
So, what comes next? Of course, nobody is to blame for the environment into which they are born. But, equally, we have to recognise that there are good and bad environments — and whichever one you are born into does affect your life outcome. Accepting this is the first step to solving the disparities faced not just by black Americans but also by other disadvantaged groups in the US. This was affirmative action’s fundamental flaw: the plight of poor black Americans has little to do with race. It was a policy inspired by good intentions, born into a world that no longer exists.