Only about 40 percent of adults in their late 20s have a bachelor’s degree, and that’s true of only 25 to 30 percent of blacks and Latinos in that age range. Just 20 to 25 percent of black and Latino men ages 25 to 29 have a bachelor’s degree. Most college graduates attend schools that are minimally selective.
All of that is to say that in terms of redressing inequality of opportunity in America, it is easy to overstate the importance of the death of affirmative action brought about by Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. It is true that affirmative action in higher education provided tangible benefits for a sizable number of Americans from racial groups underrepresented in elite positions—many of them striving first-time college enrollees, hard-working grinders who overcame underperforming schools, or fresh-faced young adults playing by the rules and pursuing their American Dream. Those benefits flowed to their children as well.
But by differentiating between applicants depending on their racial background, affirmative action in college admissions always sat uncomfortably between the values of opportunity and fairness. It also did little to help those African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans (not to mention whites and Asian Americans) who failed to complete high school or graduated unprepared for college, entering adulthood without the knowledge and skills that are most highly compensated in the labor market. And, in marked contrast to the picture in the early days of affirmative action, elite colleges and universities today will continue to place heavy value on diversity and be eager to admit qualified students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Nevertheless, the demise of race-based affirmative action should inspire renewed commitment to the ideal of equal opportunity in America. For conservatives, it is time to reexamine the role of public policy in expanding the opportunities of disadvantaged children.
A renewed policy focus on the upward mobility of lower-income children would broadly benefit large segments of society, realizing the under-developed potential of kids tripped up by barriers not of their own making. Because children from groups underrepresented among the elite are decidedly overrepresented among the disadvantaged, an effective policy agenda around upward mobility would stand to benefit them more than affirmative action could, even as it avoids explicit racial targeting.
Conservatives should debate these policies, but a broad range of ideas should be on the table: reforming zoning, land use, and educational policies that restrict the neighborhoods and schools disadvantaged children can access; safety net reforms to combat perverse incentives faced by parents; early childhood interventions that leverage local civil society; tax policies to promote parental work and marriage; encouraging mentorship to build social capital; new pathways to occupational credentials; public safety measures; K–12 reforms; and any number of other ideas. The important thing is to set upward mobility as a top priority and offer solutions that are better than those on offer among progressives.
Believing that policy should prioritize expanded opportunities for disadvantaged children does not require endorsing the unpopular racial agenda pushed by a small but influential number on the left. It is wholly compatible with the expectation that parents and adolescents conduct themselves with a sense of agency and personal responsibility.
Disadvantaged children face a slew of barriers to success, but those from racial groups underrepresented among the elite are much more likely to be burdened by concentrated poverty, multigenerational poverty, and history. That history includes times of state-perpetrated discrimination (and while the nation has made great progress, we are yet to achieve a race-blind society). Affirmative action was a flawed way to address these disproportionate burdens. But rather than accept the status quo, the Supreme Court’s decision should inspire conservatives to find ways to help many more children realize their American Dream than affirmative action did.