After the End of Affirmative Action

By Paolo von Schirach–

WASHINGTON- The US Supreme Court decided that university admission policies that favor one ethnic group, sometimes to the detriment of another, are unconstitutional. This is an epochal decision. No more declared or undeclared quota systems. Until now affirmative action was widely adopted by most universities because it was deemed to be a reasonably effective remedy to correct the lingering racial discrimination that prevents African Americans to have equal opportunity when applying to universities.


But this practice is now officially over. The Supreme Court decided that any preferential treatment motivated in some measure by the race of the applicant is not contemplated by the US Constitution. In fact, the US Constitution stipulates the opposite. All US citizens, whatever their race or background, should receive equal treatment in any and all circumstances. A declared or undeclared quota system favoring one groups while penalizing another is therefore unconstitutional. In the case before the Court, two universities, Harvard and the University of North Carolina, penalized some well qualified Asian Americans applicants while favoring less qualified African Americans.

The critics of this landmark US Supreme Court decision stated that the Court’s reasoning, while correct in principle, is in fact disingenuous because it omits the reality of continuing discrimination against African Americans. This reality of continuing discrimination –they claim– justifies measures, such as affirmative action, designed to provide some redress for those who are routinely discriminated against, by giving them opportunities otherwise denied to them by a system that, despite historic federal legislation going back to 1964, to date remains fundamentally racist.

The real roots of inequality

There is some truth to this argument. However, by focusing on the admissions criteria adopted by universities, the critics fail to identify the root of the inequality problem that penalizes African American students. The problem is not that African American applicants are treated unfairly on account of race when they apply to a university. The problem is that many if not most young African Americans are the product of mediocre or horrible public schools. In most cases they attend these failing schools because they have no other choice. And here is the problem. If African American children, due to no fault of their own, are enrolled in primary and then secondary schools where they receive mediocre and all too often appallingly bad education, it is no surprise that, upon graduation from this deeply flawed system, they will be academically worse off than their White or Asian American peers, many of whom attended good public schools, or higher quality private schools.

Clearly, when all these young adults –White, Asian, African Americans and others — apply to a university, those who received a high quality primary and secondary education will enjoy a huge advantage. Not because they are necessarily more capable or more intelligent, but because, on account of a better education, they are more knowledgeable and more attuned to analytical thinking than others who did not have the benefit provided by high quality education.

Affirmative Action policies did not address failing public schools

Affirmative action, by securing that the university student body composition reflects the broader society in terms of percentages of various ethnic groups, would make us believe that somehow, via carefully calibrated university admissions policies, the inequality issue have been “resolved”. But it is not so. Via quota systems, the failing public schools issue, the true root of inequality, is papered over and ignored. To the extent that minorities are properly represented within any university, there is no discrimination issue.

Hopefully this Supreme Court decision will force policymakers to engage in a serious effort aimed at drastically reforming public education in so many parts of America. It is not Harvard’s fault if on balance White and Asian American applicants have better academic credentials and therefore, without quotas, will end up getting most of the available spots. The root of the problem is that it is extremely difficult to get into Harvard or any other university, if you are an applicant coming from a a bad school system and are therefore academically less qualified.

Teachers unions protect teachers and not students

And why is it so difficult to change this horrible situation? In large measure it is because of the almost complete control over the US public education system exercised by the powerful teachers union. Sadly, the unions’ business is to promote the interests of their members, not the interests of the school children. In practice, this means that American public schools teachers get tenure almost immediately, regardless of skills and merit. Besides, given the rules of this system, it is almost impossible to get rid of under performing or down right inept teachers. And this means that unmovable bad teachers will continue to provide inferior education to far too many African American children and adolescents. Bad teachers created failed schools. As a result of this mismanagement, countless survey show that these badly underserved students eventually get high school diplomas without knowing elementary mathematics, while they are unable to read and comprehend an essay, or a newspaper article. It is no surprise that these high schools graduates are at a huge disadvantage when they apply to a university. They will compete against White or Asian students who (in most cases) are the product of a much better system.

A flawed secondary school system creates unequal opportunity

With all this in mind, it is not that a large number African American applicants will be rejected when they apply to a university on account of racial prejudice. They will be rejected because they are the product of a public education system that failed them. The answer is not in a quota system that “corrects” the access to higher education gap separating African Americans from Whites by artificially creating a “properly balanced” student body that reflects the ethnic mix of the country. Sadly, affirmative action became a tool that somehow allowed us to ignore the flaws of the primary and secondary education system. If many African Americans can be admitted to prestigious universities like Harvard, we can all pretend that all is well in America. But this is only window dressing.

All children have the right to a good public education

Any child enrolled in any American public school, whatever their race and ethnic background, has the right to receive good or excellent public education. We all know that this is not the case for a huge number of African American kids in America. This is a national tragedy that must be fixed. Quotas for university admissions are feel good remedies. They do nothing to address the disgrace of children taught by teachers who cannot teach and are nonetheless promoted by a system based on seniority in which it is nearly impossible to get fired for incompetence.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.