To grow up in the United States is to be inculcated with the promise that this land is unique in its opportunity. The legend of the self-propelled individual is ubiquitous for Americans, from the revolutionaries in Philadelphia establishing a new kind of nation to the pioneers who grittily took the West by force in the following  century. It has instilled the idea of universal economic ascendancy, typified most prominently by the idea of a white picket fence and two cars in the driveway; it is what most of us over the past century would call the American Dream. But what happens when certain Americans, on the basis of their race alone, are so egregiously discouraged from attaining this dream?

Assuming no inherent disparities in intelligence or moral fiber among different races exists, calling for these discriminated Americans to be afforded the baseline level of opportunity should not be heralded as magnanimous; it should be expected. When the efforts to restore parity among all races in this country are attainable only through artificial means, there should be no act of surprise or leap to indignation.

After all, it was only through artificial means — more specifically, unconstitutional and violent ones — that these Americans were subjugated in the first place. These racially divisive corrections have left these Americans to watch on the sidelines as the American Dream bequeathed all its wonders only to those lucky enough to possess the proper birthright. What could be more un-American?

These artificial means are comprised of so-called affirmative action policies implemented over the course of the last half-century. The present day provides a golden opportunity to look back on how and why these affirmative action policies have succeeded and failed where they did. The legacy of affirmative action remains in housing policy through the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but is hotly contested in college admissions; ultimately, the problems addressed by those midcentury reforms have continued to persist in ways that justify affirmative action in the present.

As a tactic promoting equality of opportunity among races, affirmative action is notoriously difficult to judge because of the contrasting vision for affirmative action applications.]. Should the goal be to eliminate discriminatory practices against minorities and thereby create, from that point on, a level playing field? This signature view of earlier liberals should be noted as contrary to the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who famously articulated the reasoning behind artificial restorations of racial parity: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, ‘You are now free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Incidentally, the later vision of affirmative action that actively promoted the hiring of minority workers — was not only affirmed by Johnson but also carried on by Republican President Richard Nixon — resembled the controversial use of affirmative action in college admissions more than the Fair Housing Act’s less radical, egalitarian language. The 1960s saw the same flavor of affirmative action reach upper education, buttressed by the 1968 Supreme Court decision upholding efforts to desegregate schools. Finally, it seemed that African Americans — along with other minorities — were on their way to achieving more through more balanced college enrollment, which would go hand in hand with higher material attainment.

However, that dream has not yet been accomplished, as there are still major racial gaps in college enrollment, and massive gaps between white and Black wealth accordingly. We could look to the more egalitarian interpretation of affirmative action, in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, for answers. Passed in the smoldering aftermath of bloody riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the act aimed to help African-American families participate in the process of home ownership and wealth generation from which they had been excluded for generations. Decades of government-sanctioned redlining policies effectively prevented them from obtaining mortgages and saving earnings, further distancing them from the American Dream enjoyed by their white peers.

The Fair Housing Act has proved to be similarly incomplete when observed with affirmative action in college admissions. Even after the Fair Housing Act, cities became more Black while suburban centers grew more white. Neighborhoods that were redlined 80 years ago are much more likely than not to still be low-income. Discriminatory lending practices are still alive and well, which has allowed de facto racial segregation to persist in housing. The act, and all of the affirmative action efforts it entailed, succeeded in recognizing the problem but failed to pursue a truly effective path of remedy.

These efforts also have their fair share of critics, many of whom would point to the failure of affirmative action in college admissions, in particular, as an undeniable evidence of the practice’s innate faults. The idea that correcting centuries of Black dismantlement should fall on the white and Asian college applicants of today is, in the eyes of these critics, both unfair and actually harmful to the Black students affected. The elevation of otherwise-underprepared Black students in the application process is indeed a real issue, and this “mismatch” effect is clearly supported by the phenomenon of disproportionately low college achievement among Black students.

However, arguments that affirmative action is unfair to the non-Black candidates it displaces and characterizations of the mismatch effect as an evil inseparable from the idea of affirmative action are complete mischaracterizations of the issue at hand. Critics of affirmative action often lament  the fact that our affirmative action policies only seem to lend themselves to minorities well past the formative times of childhood and adolescence. In this view, affirmative action policy effectively neglects minority children until it comes time to apply for college or to a job, only serving to secure them seats in colleges they are not prepared for and bringing upon them all the subsequent shame of being an “affirmative action hire” if they manage to graduate.

While these are fair complaints, they neglect the fact that the solution to this problem was already implemented in America decades ago with forced school integration. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education struck down legally enforced school segregation in 1954, but integration of schools was only accomplished by the advent of mandatory busing between majority-white and majority-Black elementary, middle and high schools. Not long after, a U.S. government-commissioned report found the individual racial and socioeconomic attributes of students were less predictive of their future academic achievements than were their schools’ levels of integration. It is unsurprising, then, that the period from then until the tapering off of mandatory desegregation policy saw certain measures of academic ability between Black and white teens leap dramatically

Why, then, was full racial parity in education (or something close to it) not achieved? The answer is white flight. Both politically and physically, the white families burdened by the act of busing their children to lesser schools soon resisted the inconveniences associated with full educational integration. Often, it was by moving to the suburbs  that whites escaped busing, which left a void in their place that would more often than not be filled by non-white families, rejecting the idea of integration at its very core. One way or another, the level of integration achieved was deemed satisfactory by the late 1990s, bringing an end to the legal justification for forced integration in the first place and leaving room for many of the same disparities to creep back.

This white flight was not novel; America had seen it a generation earlier, in response to the aforementioned Fair Housing Act. For all of the controversy surrounding the act’s passage, it ultimately demanded little more than the equal treatment fort those seeking to purchase a home. Driven by the same dream of a white picket fence and two cars in the driveway as their white peers, African Americans welcomed the act as a relief to the incessant discriminatory and predatory practices levied against them in the years before 1968. Despite the earnest ambitions of African Americans, the prospect of integrated neighborhoods, like integrated schools, drove a large amount of whites out the inner cities and thus solidified the ghetto as the community of urban Blacks.

None of this is new knowledge. The racialization of the American living space and the wholly unequal division of society’s resources along explicitly racial lines was realized by the famous Kerner Commission, convened after the rampant riots of the summer of 1967.  With regard to the ghettos now synonymous with minority communities, the Commission was unambiguous: “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

This is not to say that white Americans as an entire race were, or are, guilty orchestrators of the formation of Black ghettos in America. Far from it. They were, however, beneficiaries in a country simultaneously occupied by those who were suffering for no other basis than melanin content. Running away from the racial nature of the divide in the intertwined realms of housing and education between Black and white Americans is a dangerous first step toward not only impeding, but also dismantling the goal of equality of opportunity.

This is, indeed, a racial issue. If the attainment of equal opportunity is truly the aim of affirmative action policy, then equality of outcome should not be a factor. Low-income Americans, regardless of race, are not the target of affirmative action – those disproportionately excluded from wealth attainment along lines that racial are. Suggestions, largely from conservatives, that the structure of affirmative action be tweaked to target the socioeconomically disadvantaged as opposed to racial minorities reflect a misplaced approach marketed as colorblind.

The reality is that such a restructuring would only perpetuate the disparities that persist between Black and white Americans even after income alone is controlled. In other words, a colorblind affirmative action policy for college applicants of lower socioeconomic status would still elevate disproportionately more whites than Blacks, neglecting racial inequities in the aggregate. Additionally, the mismatch effect would only replicate itself in such a scenario, doing nothing to close the wide race gap in graduation rates, as it would beset Black and white Americans alike.

It’s important to note that this holistic perspective is often crowded out by invocation of such outliers as former President Barack Obama or U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose successes distract from the socioeconomic challenges facing a vast majority of those who would benefit from affirmative action policies. Even then, their successes are qualified by racially disproportionate rates of downward mobility, further poking holes in the idea that a purely socioeconomic affirmative action would constitute desirable policy.

All of this has served to disprove the original characterization of affirmative action as ineffective. There is also, however, the challenge that affirmative action at its core is unfair to the majority of students it affects, whether it is white middle schoolers bussed to inner city schools or white college applicants rejected from Harvard University in favor of Black students. Viewed on their own, these actions do, in fact, contradict the ideal of meritocracy. The idea that every college should get its pick of the very best applicants, and every student their pick of the very best schools they are qualified for, is at odds with affirmative action. That much is undeniable.

What happens, however, when we view these actions in line with the broader scope of history? Conservatives often emphasize that affirmative action is about pushing people out as much as it is about letting others in. This is most definitely true when it comes to institutions like college, where the number of seats is essentially fixed; letting in more Black students means fewer white students get a shot. But is the inverse of this relationship not enjoyed by those same white students, simply by virtue of their race? The same zero-sum principle applied to attacks on affirmative action policy is this policy’s very justification, as the very act of being white statistically entails a whole host of economic, workforce, and geographical advantages over Black Americans.

Reminding ourselves that affirmative action amounts to a purposeful, yet still moral, disenfranchisement of white Americans in certain circumstances (and to limited effect) stings a bit less when reflecting on the past half-century. Fifty years ago, amid all the other tumult of 1968, the Kerner Commission in its report placed the onus on white Americans to begin the march toward racial parity – not because the guilt was shared by all whites, but because whites were the ones with the power to initiate change. Fifty years ago, as tragedy sparked the beginning of redress for a century of cynically enforced, racially-motivated housing exclusion, more outwardly redistributive forms of affirmative action were coming into bloom.

Pragmatically, there is much that can be done to improve the outcomes of these affirmative action policies. While their validity in the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court has remained a shaky matter, the side effects of their forced racial redistributions are made clear by the mismatch effect. The alternative, however, has already faced its fair share of backlash from a public unwilling to make the tradeoffs necessary to achieve better-distributed opportunity. The truth remains that meaningful affirmative action, in the short run, demands sacrifice from those normally accustomed to a disproportionate share of the wealth.

Acknowledging this sacrifice as a necessary cost of greater overall attainment is in of itself an acknowledgement of an American Dream for all. Convincing those around us to join the fight for equality of opportunity would allow for deliberation on affirmative action policies that start earlier in the education process and therefore bypass these problems.  It would also allow greater breathing room for policy, and thereby bring about the possibility of circumventing the pains associated with forced integration in the past.

One may look to current misgivings with redistributive affirmative action policy to see where the main impediment to progress lies. Current U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts once wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” That segment of American society like Roberts, still unconvinced of their part in restoring the American Dream, must realize just how much is at stake for those Americans who have yet realize it. Then, the sacrifice will feel worthwhile.

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