The debate over affirmative action has been opened up once again. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Abigail Fisher, a 22-year-old white graduate of Louisiana State University, who believes she was denied admission into the University of Texas at Austin four years ago because of her race.
Fisher's case is bringing new attention to the intractable issue of affirmative action in college admissions in the U.S. The topic of racial preferences in admissions decisions has been a hotly contested issue for years in American race relations, with the same arguments given on both sides. But beyond the issue of affirmative action, what America has failed to see is that the answers to bridging the achievement gaps between minorities and whites lie deeper, in the policies that govern access to education for the younger generation.
Examining the issue in context, inequalities in educational access and achievement are largely remnants of a history of institutional racism. The problem of racial inequality today is the consequence of years of unjust, discriminatory policies which restricted access to proper economic, social and educational services for blacks and other minorities. Jim Crow laws left a cruel legacy of marginalization and systematic discrimination that is impossible to ignore. But as society tries to move beyond its dark past, we must continue to grapple with the issue of administering corrective justice.
Affirmative action aims to increase access to higher education for minorities, providing an alternative solution to remedy years of injustice. But implementing a race-conscious policy in determining admissions fuels a sense of resentment among whites, does not fundamentally solve the problem of low-income high-income communities and employment gaps, and fails to essentially move towards a society beyond race. It poses a complicated dilemma: dealing with racial inequality in a way that won’t over-step its own bounds and create more racial animosity.
The crux of the matter really lies in educational disparities in K-12 education, a troubling and often overlooked issue.
Gaps in educational achievement between low-income and high-income communities are often the result of government policies and an unequal distribution of funding for schools. In her essay “Structured for Failure: Race, Resources, and Student Achievement,” Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond points out, “Academic underperformance is not primarily the result of deficiencies that reside in the students themselves but is instead substantially the consequence of inequality in educational resources.”
Disparities in education are a result of an uneven distribution of educational resources and a lack of equal funding for students in low-income communities in particular. Hammond also states, “Where in most countries schools are funded centrally and equally, in the United States, the top 10% of districts spend ten times more than the bottom 10%. There are districts in this country that spend $40,000 per pupil, and there are others that spend $4,000 per pupil.”
Low-income communities, which are predominately composed of racial minorities, struggle the most with providing schools the necessary resources to help students excel. When a minority student is accepted into college via affirmative action, they are still at a disadvantage in competing with other students who have come from more comprehensive, higher-funded educational backgrounds.
Simply put, the lack of educational resources (often regardless of race, as there are white students who live in low-income communities) is the root of the problem of educational disparities.
Instead of taking aim at policies which favor minority students, it would be more rewarding to focus on policies that govern educational funding across schools in order to fix the achievement gap. Policies that help to fix the imbalance of education in America based on income instead of race allows for color-blind measures in correcting the differences between poor and wealthy students. Providing students with an equal footing from the start of their education works to their benefit in creating a leveled playing field and fair competition for jobs.
Whether the Supreme Court rules against or in favor of affirmative action in yet another case of a white student who resents the system, the problem of bridging the gap in America will remain unless reform is brought that brings equal funding and equal opportunities to early education.