Beyond Affirmative Action
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville said that “there is hardly a political question in America which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.” That observation seems especially apt as we await oral arguments, scheduled for October 10, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the most recent affirmative-action challenge to reach the United States Supreme Court.
The policies under review in Fisher are complex, and many commentators have been reluctant to speculate about what the case might mean for affirmative action in general. But whatever happens in this case, we must recognize that controversies about race-conscious admissions have unhelpfully narrowed the debate about equality of educational opportunity and diverted attention from the extraordinary inequalities that continue to exist.
The scope of the judicial question about affirmative action is undeniably narrow. Most Americans who attend college matriculate at institutions that accept a majority of their applicants and then struggle to find resources to provide them with a quality education. Those students often take on sizable debt to attend, and far too many never complete a degree, whether because elementary and secondary schools have left them academically underprepared or because their families have no tradition of higher education or because they cannot balance the demands of school and employment. Moreover, as Michelle Alexander observes in The New Jim Crow, too many minority young men “matriculate” into the prison system, often in states that devote proportionately greater resources to prisons than to higher education.
Those realities suggest that the percentage of minorities at selective institutions has little to do with the educational opportunities available to Americans (minority and nonminority) who struggle to attend underfinanced universities, or who have no hope of attending college at all. Shortly before his death, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that the second phase of the civil-rights movement ought to be a general campaign against economic inequality. Today, proponents of equality must embrace that suggestion by encouraging institutional change and social innovation that more effectively respond to inequalities in access to postsecondary education.