This Is The End Of Affirmative Action
The Atlantic|September 2021
We have to face the reality that our education system is, and always has been, separate and unequal.
By Adam Harris

One afternoon, during my freshman year at Alabama A&M University, my homework was piling up, and I was feeling antsy. I needed a change of scenery from Foster Hall. I’d heard that the library at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, 10 minutes away, was open three hours longer than our own. So I loaded up my backpack, ran down the stairs—the dorm’s elevator was busted—and headed across town.

Founded in 1875 to educate Black students who had been shut out of American higher education, A&M was a second home for me. My mom had gone there; my uncle had been a drum major in the ’80s; my sister was on the volleyball team. But when you’re home long enough, you start to notice flaws: The classroom heaters were always breaking down, and the campus shuttle never seemed to run on time when it was coldest out. When I arrived at UAH, I was shocked. The buildings looked new, and fountains burst from man-made ponds. The library had books and magazines I’d never heard of—including the one for which I now write.

Something else quickly became obvious: Almost every student I saw at UAH was white. That day, a little more than a decade ago, was my introduction to the bitter reality that there are two tracks in American higher education. One has money and confers prestige, while the other—the one that Black students tend to tread—does not.

The United States has stymied Black education since the country’s founding. In Alabama in the 1830s, you could be fined $500 for teaching a Black child. Later, bans were replaced by segregation, a system first enforced by custom, then by state law. Entrepreneurial Black educators opened their own colleges, but as a 1961 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights pointed out, these schools were chronically underfunded. The report called for more federal money for institutions that did not discriminate against Black students. Nothing much came of it.

But as the civil rights movement gained traction, white schools started reckoning with a legacy of exclusion. For the first time, they began to make a real effort to offer Black students an equal shot at higher education, through a strategy called affirmative action.

President John F. Kennedy had used the phrase in a 1961 executive order requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” The goal was to diversify the federal workforce and, crucially, to begin to correct for a legacy of discrimination against applicants of color.

Colleges that adopted affirmative action in their admissions programs quickly faced challenges. White applicants filed lawsuits, claiming that to take race into account in hiring or education in any way discriminated against them. A long process of erosion began, undermining the power of affirmative action to right historical wrongs.

Today, race-conscious admissions policies are weak, and used by only a smattering of the most highly selective programs. Meanwhile, racial stratification is, in many places, getting worse.

Nearly half of the students who graduate from high school in Mississippi are Black, but in 2019, Black students made up just 10 percent of the University of Mississippi’s freshman class. The share of Black students there has shrunk steadily since 2012. In Alabama, a third of graduating high-school students are Black, but in 2019 just 5 percent of the student body at Auburn University, one of the state’s premier public institutions, was Black. While total enrollment has grown by thousands, Auburn now has fewer Black undergraduates than it did in 2002.

Over the past two decades, the percentage of Black students has fallen at almost 60 percent of the “101 most selective public colleges and universities,” according to a report by the nonprofit Education Trust.

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