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Affirmative Action is Not Enough To Solve Disparities within the Educational System

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A judge has recently struck down a conservative legal group’s lawsuit challenging the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s affirmative action policies. A win for advocates of such policies, this lawsuit underscores the decades-long fight for equitable and reparational policies in the college admissions process. But it also represents a much larger issue at hand. While affirmative action policies provide a bandaid on inequity in the school system, it is simply not enough. It is the matter of economic and housing policies—and not just educational policy—that is at the core of repairing disparities within the educational system.

US history books infamously declare the case Brown v. Board of Education to be the end of segregation in schools in the country; however, while the ruling was in place, it was not implemented effectively nor immediately. When it was time for the decision to be implemented in 1955, the Supreme Court was slow and passive in “deferr[ing] its exercise for a more convenient time.” [1] Massive resistance, specifically among segregationists in the Jim Crow South, occurred through racist ideas and violence. Klan violence loomed, and readings in schools like Gone with the Wind incorporated such racist ideas. [2] Five years after the decision, only forty of 300,000 African American students in North Carolina attended integrated schools. White terrorism and a lack of consequences kept Black children from their right of an education. With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, two provisions in the act enabled the federal government to enforce the desegregation of public schools. The Justice Department could sue schools that refused to integrate, while the federal government could withhold funding from segregated schools – actions which represented the beginnings of government action against educational disparities.

While these monumental changes in our nation’s history are of great importance, they must not overshadow the segregation of the school system that still remains today. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Black children are five times as likely as white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity. This statistic is largely due to a broader issue that exists in the U.S.: the economic segregation of minority students. Most African American and Latino students attend schools where at least 75 percent of all students qualify as poor or low-income in about half of the largest U.S. cities. Students of color are overwhelmingly surrounded by low-income classmates. It is due to the immense concentration of poverty among minority students and exclusionary economic-zoning laws that create a gap in academic achievement between white people and students of color. This lack of funding in these schools has been shown to affect performance. For example, low-poverty white students perform higher in math than high-poverty students of color, as reported by the NAEP.

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This racial-achievement gap is not just prevalent within the elementary and secondary school system; it spills over into college admissions as well. Not only do early and legacy admissions favor wealthy, white students over low-income students of color, but standardized testing is of particular concern. The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) estimates that one student may spend up to $10,160 on testing materials, such as test prep books, classes, tutoring, and testing fees. Although standardized test scores have become less of a requirement for applicants since the pandemic began, minority students could continue to be at a disadvantage until test scores are completely eliminated from the college admissions process.

A new report on admissions policies by the IHEP recommends certain reforms in the admissions process that will remedy the situation for minority students. These recommendations include colleges adjusting their policies on recruiting students to focus on low-income minority students and rethinking “demonstrated interest” policies which favor white students who can afford to visit campus. Additionally, ending early-decision programs and eliminating questions about experience with the criminal justice system in legacy admissions is vital. Other recommendations include eliminating the use of standardized tests, strengthening transfer pathways for students and investing in need-based financial aid.

Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

Although these recommendations are essential for mitigating the racial disparities present within the college admissions process, they do not address the deep-rooted economic inequities between white people and people of color in the way that a shift in policy would. A reform of educational policy can be immensely helpful in reducing such disparities. But as race and poverty are related, a reform in economic and housing policies are of utmost importance to solving these issues. Researchers have found that the extent to which students attend schools surrounded by other low-income students is the single most important predictor of racial gaps in educational achievement. Schools in poorer communities have less local resources, fewer parents with college degrees, fewer volunteers in the schools, and they have a more difficult time obtaining high-quality teachers. Furthermore, many of the students that attend these schools are students of color and suffer through inequitable conditions. But these are not immutable circumstances; school integration can become easier once residential integration is implemented. Economic growth in cities can be aided by policy that ensures that young people are equipped to compete for the jobs being created in the city. Housing issues that have created segregated communities can be tackled by increasing opportunities for Black homeownership, investing in racially segregated communities, and reforming exclusionary economic-zoning laws.

A fair and just school system is not inevitable. But affirmative action policies and a reformed education system is not enough; it is through the means of economic and housing policies—and policymakers—that change can be initiated. Yet the mere existence of policy is not only required for such change. Policy must not be passively implemented in incrementalist fashion like the Board v. Brown decision, which continued to allow racial inequities to linger and thrive among the school system. It must be implemented in antiracist fashion: actively, directly, and effectively.


[1] Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning. (New York, NY: Avalon Publishing Group, 2016), 365-366.

[2] Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 365-366.


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