The impending decision of Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina may end or curtail affirmative action. But, in addition to this question of whether or not the practice is constitutional, we should also be asking ourselves whether or not it even works. 

When originally conceived, as part of Executive Order 11246 issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the purpose of affirmative action was to promote the full realization of equal opportunity for women and minorities. This eventually led universities like University of California at Irvine to adopt admissions standards to supposedly meet this goal, usually in the form of outright racial quotas.

Just about a decade later, that decision would be challenged in Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke. In that case, plaintiff Allan Bakke argued that the racial quota system instituted as a form of affirmative action was what caused him to be rejected twice from UCI’s medical school. 

As a result, racial quotas were deemed unconstitutional, but other forms of race consideration were allowed as long as they met the purpose of affirmative action, which was to correct “centuries of unequal treatment,” according to Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

At the time, this seemed convincing, since the thought was that in order to ameliorate the inequalities created by Jim Crow-era policies, more minorities needed to be in positions of power. 

This line of thinking was perpetuated by people like WEB Du Bois, who in his influential essay, “The Talented Ten,” advocated for the education and training of the top 10% percent of black Americans, who then in turn would guide their communities out of poverty. People like Booker T. Washington disagreed, however, arguing instead that black Americans should focus on business and education in the trades as their primary way out of poverty. 

In the end, it would be Du Bois’ approach that would win out, consequently leading to affirmative action being implemented and becoming the most effective within elite institutions where the black student population was the lowest. 

Since then, the representation of black Americans and other minorities has grown, reaching parity with population percentage in many areas. Unfortunately, as data shows, none of this representation trickled down in the form of wealth and prosperity like Du Bois hypothesized it would. 

Consider, for example, the fact that more than 40% of the presidential cabinet nominees have been non-white since H.W. Bush (excluding the Trump administration), according to the Brookings Institute.

Additionally, as of 2021, there were 57 black House members in Congress (not including non-voting delegates and commissioners), putting the share of black House members at 13%, close to the percentage of the American population identified as black (13.6%). 

Yet, as data from the Brookings Institute shows, the wealth gap between black and white households is even wider now than it was in 1989, despite the apparent growth in black political representation. 

Even if we were to attribute all of this growth in political representation to the start of affirmative action in the 1960s, which would be a generous concession to Du Bois’ argument, it’s clear that when it comes to actually alleviating racial wealth gaps, it has completely failed. 

The truth of affirmative action, and the flaw that Justice Thurgood Marshall did not adequately point out, is that affirmative action by itself was never going to solve the wealth gap. 

It only takes a closer look into who affirmative action actually benefits to see that affirmative action has served far more as a cover for perpetuating wealth privilege under an imaginary guise of racial diversity. 

In North Carolina, for example, 46% of Asian students, 34% of white students, 21% of Hispanic students, and 13% of black students earned proficient scores on eighth-grade reading in 2021 according to WFAE. The scores for eighth-grade math range from 60% for Asian students, to 37% for white students, 16% for Hispanic students, and 9% for black students.

Ignoring affirmative action, these numbers show how badly black and brown students are prepared to even just go to college, let alone be competitive in elite programs. 

It’s also because of these poor performance scores that elite colleges often defer to recruiting the sons and daughters of wealthy immigrants and looking at only the elite feeder high schools as their main source of diverse students. 

As prominent research from African-American scholars Lani Guinier and Henry Louis Gates Jr. showed, elite black college freshmen increasingly come disproportionately from mixed-race backgrounds or immigrant families from Africa or the Caribbean. 

More recent research from Harvard professor Anthony Jack, in his 2019 book, “The Privileged Poor,” showed that a minute fraction of low-income black private-school students make up half of the low-income black students at Ivy League colleges. 

All of this should prove to us how ineffective, if not counterproductive, affirmative action has been. It should make us realize just how misguided those who originally crafted and implemented affirmative action were.  

Regardless of the decision of SFFA v. UNC, minority students will unfortunately continue to lag behind on education, eventually leading them to struggle economically when they grow older. 

This is because affirmative action was never actually going to alleviate the disparity problem, no matter what the intent was. To truly help minority students, we need to focus on creating early success and competence in our schools. Affirmative action just sets them up for failure later on for the sake of appearances.