Why So Unequal? The Racial Achievement Gap in American Public Urban Schools

by Katie Shine

©Medium Magazine

Countless non-white Americans, particularly African-Americans, continue to have unacceptable access to high-quality schools, experienced teachers, and challenging academic curriculum. Why? After excavating the racial academic achievement gap in public urban schools, historians have analyzed our past. In doing so, it is evident that the U.S.’s negligent view towards white privilege and segregation’s legacy has led to unequal educational opportunities and harmful race-based theories about the reasons for the gap, such as the concept of a “cultural deficit” (a perceived deficiency in African Americans’ attitude towards education). This inaccurate and offensive theory is a direct consequence of the inability of many Americans to acknowledge our own history of racism which to continues to hinder the educational experiences of many non-white students. 

Fact: The last year of minimal difference between the average black American student’s academic performance compared to a white peer can occur as young as 6 years old.1Tim J. Wise, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. (Positions, Routledge, 2005), 41. This frustrating statistic points to current conditions in America that are still suffering from the legacy of segregation, racial discrimination, and deep inequalities in family wealth and income between races.  The average black high school student is 17% more likely to reside in a low-income, poverty-concentrated neighborhood than the average American high school student.2Wise, 42. This statistic is more than two times the percentage of a similar white high school student. In America, academic performance has recently been characterized by methodically “tracking” the performance of students. This tracking is often exercised by white, middle class teachers and administrators who may not have had the experience to understand the socioeconomic and behavioral needs of their students. Students, that are deemed academically poor performers, are more likely to believe their teachers do not have faith in their academic abilities, possess lower self-esteem, never graduate high school, and never apply to college.3Wise, 54-55. The tracking of students does not take into full consideration the educational inequities that have contributed to the student’s performance, such as the luxuries of time and money to seek tutoring, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and access to experienced, well-paid teachers.4Wise, 52. White high school seniors are nearly four times more likely to have been offered and taken an AP exam for university credit than their non-white counterparts because they simply had the opportunity to do so.5Wise, 52-53. The theory of cultural deficiency, that non-white students are less able to handle the same challenging coursework  as their white counterparts, sorely lacks in evidence. As Tim J. Wise remarks in Affirmative Action: Racial Preference(s) in Black and White, race does not have to be a contributing factor: “studies show that greater than 90% of all students can master virtually any course material so long as the material is presented in a challenging way, using appropriate instructional techniques”.6Wise, 52. 

For the past six decades, large urban school districts have suffered a series of frustrations in battling the racial education gap. However, the gap also presents an opportunity to provide an education that is more racially conscious, absent of the dichotomy of white educational performance vs. performance of the “other” races, and fortified by experienced instructors.7Joseph P. Viteritti, When Mayors Take Charge: School Governance in the City (Brookings Institution Press, 2009). 2-3. This nod to the “other” is an issue because its invocation as a means of comparison reinforces the narrative that white academic success is the norm and that the “other” must catch up to the white student norm. Non-white students face additional hurdles such as their access to challenging AP courses and fair evaluation by their teachers; this not a failure of the students themselves but an oversight of the school administration to focus on curriculum, accountability and leadership.8Viteritti, 3-4. 

By 2007, after nearly a decade of extensive district assessments and reform initiatives focusing on improving reading skills, mathematical levels and test scores, the Boston school district reported that 89% of whites in 10th grade met or exceeded standards in reading and math. Only 45% of African-Americans and 48% of Hispanic Americans had met those same standards.9Viteritti, 107. In Chicago, by 2010, despite a decade of attempting to improve the performance of students placed in remedial courses in high school, teachers and administrators provided undeserved waivers for ⅓ of all detained students. The “odds of receiving a waiver were significantly higher for white students than for African Americans” and those students that received a waiver were more likely to pass their classes.10Viteritti, 127. By 2001, the standardized test scores between African American students in Chicago public schools and their white counterparts had widened significantly from previous years and the high school graduation rate was similarly low.11Viteritti, 129. 

Proposed solutions in the 21st century have included new models based on culturally sensitive teaching methods, accountability for administrations, adjustments to meet the specter of violence in schools, and increased advanced curriculum.12Viteritti, 219-220. Additional brainstorming sessions have produced methods like the recruitment of more diverse teachers, and productive dialogue with current teachers regarding effective, realistic instruction methods customized to the needs of non-white students. In his landmark book, Why Race Culture Matters in Schools, Tyrone Howard confronts the difficulty in executing these ideal solutions. He describes the achievement gap as one that is rooted in America’s past history of racism: a “discrepancy in educational outcomes between various student groups namely African-Americans ,Native Americans, certain Asian Americans and Latinos on the low end of the performance scale, and primarily white students at the higher end of the academic performance”.13Tyrone C. Howard, Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms, (Teachers College Press, 2010), 10. Howard’s solution includes the fierce denial of “cultural deficiency”; the rejection of colorblind policies and diversity initiatives as an ineffective healing balm; and “culturally responsive” instruments that acknowledge systemic disparities between white and non-white students.14Howard, 68. These methods, of course, entail admitting that the history of racism in America still affects opportunities in school.  Despite popular belief, we are not living in an America “post-racism”.15Bettina L. Love, and Brandelyn Tosolt,  “Reality or Rhetoric? Barack Obama and Post-Racial America” (Race, Gender & Class 17, 2010), 19. 

Michael Eric Dyson has asserted that fixing the efficiencies in accountability and leadership in low-income, minority schools requires moving towards a “post-racist” society instead of a “post-racial” one.16Jeffrey S. Brooks, and Noelle Witherspoon Arnold, Anti-Racist School Leadership: Toward Equity in Education for America’s Students, (Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, N.C., 2013), ix. Post-racism equates to transcending the narrative of whiteness as the norm, and that white privilege must be the default power structure.17Brooks, ix-iv. An associated remedy is the tailoring of educational standards to local schools so that students’ needs are met and that well-intentioned yet sometimes inexperienced teachers can “learn and unlearn racism” and put their talents towards individualized instruction and support.18Brooks, xv. The additional expectations of “passion, persistence, and practice” for teachers are quite demanding especially in low-income, urban school districts already pinched for time, resources, and emotional support on the job.19Brooks, 26.

However difficult, American public schools need to move past a post-racial educational system to a post-racist one. Cheryl Harris, the preeminent scholar and legal expert, addressed this quandary with her theory,“whiteness as property”, and the employment of critical race theory in legal scholarship.20Brooks, 3. Harris asserted that the effects of racial inequality in America, and the limited benefits of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for African-Americans, has had undesired results such as de facto segregation that persists in neighborhoods and the displacement of African-American students to low-quality public schools.21Brooks, 3-4.  When Americans classify urban school districts as undesirable, low-income, unsuccessful, and most likely populated with minority students, they are enforcing an unhelpful stereotype that strengthens whiteness as property, privilege, and success. The mass media’s depiction of inner-city school districts, from Chicago to New York City, as “the other” in America only helps to support inaccurate views and create a harmful image about the potential academic success of non-white public urban students.22Brooks, 153.  

Recent calls to increase federal funding, promote diversity,  and embolden teacher’s unions are missing the crux of the argument that one-on-one interactions between teachers and students are more effective than vacant colorblind practices and indiscriminate transfer of funds to districts. All of these fail to mention the unique needs of students, the demands placed upon teachers and their lack of resources to implement these goals, and the lingering effects of the history of racism upon the academic achievement gap.23Szafir and Petersen. In social science discourse, the current racial educational achievement gap is a product of a gap between races in many areas of American life: differing rates of homeownership, the physical safety of residential neighborhoods, inequality in school facilities, and unrealistic expectations for tracking and test scores.24Reardon et al, 1171. This milieu of factors stems from segregation that continues to rule America’s schools and neighborhoods de facto long after segregation was declared illegal in 1954.25Reardon et al, 1171-1172. The metropolitan areas that have the largest examples of de facto segregation and a higher racial educational achievement gap, as of January 2019, can be found in appealing, prosperous cities like Atlanta, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Charleston, Minneapolis, and Oakland.26Reardon et al, 1171-1172. The presence and press coverage of these cities’ as plentiful tourist attractions, having higher standards of living for some residents, and showcasing gentrification conceals the fact that a harrowing racial educational achievement  gap remains.27Reardon et al, 1188. 

As a former tutor and instructor to public urban high school students with limited educational and socioeconomic opportunities, I have become infuriated that many Americans still refuse to admit that whiteness is a form of power and that segregation has still left disparaging signs of inequality in our public urban school systems. The history of race in America has led us directly to our current situation and gap in academic achievement. As more authors contribute to this field and acknowledge the historical and sociological reasons for the gap, I hope we can confront it and understand how the “local process” of curriculum offerings, teaching methods, opportunities, and school quality helps explain the continued manifestation and persistence of the gap.28Reardon et al, 1210. The answer (one that is complex and deserving of more time than solely this piece) should at least recognize that we reside in an America, still blighted by less visible signs of racial segregation.


Brooks, Jeffrey S., and Noelle Witherspoon Arnold. 2013. Anti-Racist School Leadership: Toward Equity in Education for America’s Students. Educational Leadership for Social Justice. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. 

Howard, Tyrone C. 2010. Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms. Teachers College Press.

Love, Bettina L., and Brandelyn Tosolt. “Reality or Rhetoric? Barack Obama and Post-Racial America.” Race, Gender & Class 17, no. 3/4 (2010): 19-37

Park, Julie J. 2013. When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action In Higher Education. Rutgers University Press.

Reardon, Sean F., Demetra Kalogrides, and Kenneth Shores. 2019. “The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gaps”. American Journal of Sociology 124 (4): 1164-1221.

Szafir, CJ and Cori Petersen. “Beware Warren’s Madisonian Plan for Public Education”. The Wall Street Journal. November 15, 2019. 

Viteritti, Joseph P. When Mayors Take Charge: School Governance in the City. Brookings Institution Press, 2009. 

Wise, Tim J. 2005. Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. Positions. Routledge.

White Privilege Continues to Reign in Admissions: The Debate about Affirmative Action

by Katie Shine

© Urban Institute

Affirmative Action. Frequently contested in public debates, it is often seriously misunderstood. Although the policy offers concrete benefits for marginalized minorities in the U.S., our nation’s deep entanglement with race and racism has made it difficult for affirmative action to battle its constant bedfellow: white privilege.  After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the creation of federal guidelines, affirmative action was developed to ameliorate the effects of educational segregation. Surprisingly, the charge was led by a former advocate for segregation, President Lyndon B. Johnson. The mandate of “nondiscrimination under a ‘race-blind Constitution’” was a fortunate byproduct of the tireless efforts of activists during the civil rights movement in the 1960s after years of Jim Crow segregation.1Hugh Davis Graham, “The Origins of Affirmative Action”, (The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 523, 1992), 50. Affirmative action attempted to correct the systemic racism that has always pervaded America. Today, affirmative action is most often debated when discussing admission to elite universities, especially the stubbornly low admission rates and retention rates of non-white students. Affirmative action critics and proponents however both need to remember the historical manifestations for white privilege and how its weight still silently controls which Amerians have the best chances to succeed in higher education.

I will start my discussion with the themes that most affect the affirmative action debate: the achievement gap; and white privilege. Next, I will explore the negative aspects of ‘color blindness’ as a solution to the racial achievement gap in college admissions; and historians’ arguments that the history of American racism has led to the gap. I will then transition to the importance of understanding affirmative action as a history, including the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court case involving Allan Bakke. Finally, I will conclude with a contemporary look at the challenges that admissions offices face, a personal account on class and racial discrimination during one man’s path to earning degrees from elite universities, and my final thoughts on this debate and its (lack of) mention of the lingering specter of white privilege. 

Affirmative action addresses two themes: the academic achievement gap; and the privilege of “whiteness”. Who has historically had the best chances for success in American society? In a 1965 public debate between the politically conservative scholar, William F. Buckley Jr., and the renowned African-American author, James Baldwin, Buckley argued that black Americans needed to “aspire” to the conditions of whiteness…however unattainable”.2Thomas Meaney, “When James Baldwin Squared Off Against William F. Buckley Jr.”, (The New York Times, 2019). He implied that African-Americans must rise up, despite impossible socio-economic obstacles and a history of mistreatment, to the standard of “whiteness”. His statement also exonerated white Americans as the gatekeepers for whiteness. To be “white” often implied than an individual could possess increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Baldwin repudiated Buckley’s ideas and countered that it is imperative that white Americans recognize their own role in propping up racism for the past three centuries. Whiteness is an inherent privilege.3Meany. It is a privilege that is still visible in higher education. The introduction of affirmative action was an attempt to reorient the American past and create a more prosperous future for those that had been discriminated against.4David Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness (Basic Books, 2006) , 8. 

However, affirmative action has left something to be desired. The racial gap in higher education has a complicated, historically contingent set of causes including: disparities in family income; the lack of a college-going culture in some communities; and the harmful stereotype of the diminished academic potential of non-white youths. Race remains integrated into our norms. The average non-white American college applicant faces steep obstacles when creating an ideal college application. As Noel Ignatiev and Cheryl Harris, have noted, “whiteness”, the factor that privileges one race over another, is a form of power. The advantages of “whiteness” were immediately visible to recently arrived Irish immigrants in the 19th century who saw the benefit of presenting themselves as “white” to assimilate into “white” culture in the U.S. This is unfortunately “something in the atmosphere of America” that Irish immigrants to America, with no previous understanding of whiteness as a social status, wryly noted.5Roediger, 31. Whiteness as a privilege implies that one “has a master…and has to beg for the privilege”.6Roediger, 79. Buckley heralded this aspect of “begging” in his sparring with Baldwin when he stated that whiteness is not a privilege “attainable” for all.7Meaney. White privilege has benefited a large portion of white Americans in their ability to apply to college, pursue careers, and own a home. Erasing America’s racial past by declaring affirmative action as the new beginning to a “colorblind” America is naive at best, and destructive at worse. Although minority representation in higher education has increased since affirmative action’s debut in the 1960s, there is still work to be done. By having college campuses that are less racially diverse than the actual representation of our nation, our educational leaders decrease the chances that white Americans will recognize their white privilege and that both white and non-white Americans will communicate and engage more meaningfully and regularly.8Ignatiev, 5.  

Colorblind policies are ineffectual because they negate race as a factor of consideration in admissions. Instead, racially conscious admissions policies offer a way to recognize the different experiences, stigmas, and obstacles that many non-white Americans face. One of these obstacles is the racial inequality in the caliber of American public schools.9Ignatiev, 57-62. Racial inequality in a student’s college preparation starts well before senior year. An average American student’s kindergarten to 12th grade education, tied with his or her socioeconomic background, is the most important indicator if he or she will be able to afford and attend college.10Ignatiev, 149. The college admissions process’ emphasis on standardized test scores and the paucity of financial aid decreases the chance that the average low-income, non-white student will even apply.11Ignatiev, 149-150. Universities also face steep challenges such as reviewing thousands of applications with a short-staffed admissions team; balancing tuition revenue and meeting enrollment targets; and battling their institution’s reputation as too homogenous or expensive for students to consider applying to.  

© The New York Times (2017)

Critics of affirmative action argue that the policy takes university seats away from qualified white Americans and subsequently offers them to less qualified minority students. Not only is this statement statistically false but it ignores the fact that white students’ ancestors have had “preferential treatment” in the realm of education, housing, legacy admissions, and wealth acquisition for decades.12Tim J. Wise, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. (Positions, Routledge, 2005), 4-5. In an infamous veto of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, President Andrew Johnson rejected the call for equality for African-Americans based upon the idea that developing a means of opportunity for blacks was “infinitely beyond any that the Central Government have ever provided for the white race”.13Wise, 29. This claim reveals the general ignorance of white privilege that has resurfaced in the arguments of affirmative action critics as well. By not discussing white privilege, affirmative action proponents are missing a pivotal opportunity for how to defeat the arguments of their opponents and debunk their misleading statements tied to historical advantages for most white Americans.Some of these quesitonable arguments include: that whites lose out on college spots; that colleges decrease the quality of their student body by increasing the representation of non-whites; that non-white students lose “sef-esteem” by being admitted to rigorous universities; and most offensively, that non-whites, especially African-Americans, are not admitted into select unviersities due to a “cultural deficiency”.14Wise, 69-70.

Historians, such as Ira Katznelson, in When Affirmative Action Was White, have recognized that racial discrimination towards non-whites is the primary reason for the racial educational achievement gap. The gap is interconnected to whiteness as a privilege as well as the disparity between white and non-white family incomes, access to equitable hiring practices, and opportunities for home ownership. Particularly after the Second World War, the racial inequality grew due in part to the uneven employment, financial, and educational application of the benefits of the GI Bill to non-white veterans.15Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, (W.W. Norton, 2005), 14-15. However, the debate often instead is unfortunately relegated to a handful of scattered Supreme Court Case decisions and the myths of the disadvantages conferred upon white college applicants from affirmative action.16Katznelson, 150-152. Affirmative action-related Supreme Court cases themselves are only one component and their complexities are often misunderstood. This has led to the unhelpful vague idea that employing colorblindness and introducing optimistic-sounding diversity initiatives are the best methods.

The 1978 Supreme Court Case of a white applicant, Allan Bakke, appealing his rejection to the University of California Medical School due to supposed racial discrimination, is often cited in the affirmative action fracas. Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke was noted as technically a victory for Allan Bakke who claimed that he was discriminated against in a post-affirmative action admissions tactic: the racial quota system. The decision was 5-4 in Bakke’s favor but the results also reveal something deeper about our nation’s public misconceptions about the unintended benefits of the policy.17Katznelson, 151-156. The court case was also a  victory for affirmative action: the idea that race should be a conscious factor of consideration for elite universities’ enrollment practices even if the racial quota system itself was inadvisable. Several of the justices’ statements imply that race consciousness was the appropriate approach to carry out affirmative action. University admissions offices have made attempts to increase the representation of low-income, minority students in recent years but they are hounded by a legitimate fear regarding creating enough annual tuition revenue. 

In September 2019, the New York Times focused on the admissions practices of an elite liberal arts, predominantly white institution, Trinity College, and its director, Angel Perez. Perez highlights the mismatch between enrollment managers’ intentions to increase the representation of minority students yet also admit enough affluent students to balance the budget. Perez notes he has to teach his colleagues “about the fact that you can’t have it all at some time. You’ve got to pick which goals you’re going to pursue”.18Paul Tough, “What College Admissions Offices Really Want”, (The New York Times Magazine, 2019). Perez’s view is one that is less publicized but shared among other racially conscious enrollment managers and affirmative action advocates. Low-income, minority students have been systematically disadvantaged by whiteness as a privilege in college admissions and enrollment.19Tough. However, Perez recognizes that admitting more low-income, minority students will lead to reduced tuition revenue, smaller budgets, and reduced services in order to offer more aid to these students. As more non-white college graduates have explained the difficult circumstances surrounding their journey to collegiate success, a clearer picture has emerged as to how race in America affects them daily.  Anthony Abraham Jack, Amherst College alumnus, and Harvard doctoral fellow, explained how growing up as a low-income, black male near Miami was a constant battle against the effects of racial inequality in his community. He explained that students with similar childhoods have had an immensely challenging college application process. How do they voice their interaction with violence, hunger, financial insecurity, or low-quality schools into their college essay while maintaining their pride? How do they take on rigorous AP courses and extracurricular activities if their school doesn’t even offer them? How do they defeat the stereotype of cultural deficiency? How do they battle their own inaccurate perceptions of their potential success?20Anthony Abraham Jack,“I Was A Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part” (The New York Times Magazine, 2019). 

In conclusion, the history of race and white privilege is essential for all policy advocates, scholars, higher education officials, and students to know. I admit that this is my own first intensive course on race in America as a graduate student. However, by recognizing my own white privilege, dissecting the impact of race upon America’s educational system and collegiate affirmative action programs, I can now see the historically influenced relationship between race, higher education and discrimination in my own country. The differing rates of university admission and campus representation between white and non-white Americans are the result of a protracted process of America’s history of privileging whiteness. This has unfortunately maintained a segregated America with a deep chasm between the haves and the have-nots. 


Graham, Hugh Davis. “The Origins of Affirmative Action: Civil Rights and the Regulatory State.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 523 (1992): 50-62. 

Ignatiev, Noel. 1995. How the Irish Became White. Routledge. 

Jack, Anthony Abraham. “I Was A Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part”.The New York Times Magazine, September 10, 2019

Katznelson, Ira. 2005. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. W.W. Norton.

Meaney, Thomas. “When James Baldwin Squared Off Against William F. Buckley Jr.”. The New York Times, October 18, 2019.

Park, Julie J. 2013. When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action In Higher Education. Rutgers University Press.

Roediger, David R. 2006. Working Toward Whiteness. Basic Books. 

Tough, Paul. “What College Admissions Offices Really Want”. The New York Times Magazine. September 10, 2019. 

Wise, Tim J. 2005. Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. Positions. Routledge.