The killing of George Floyd prompted a racial reckoning that quickly extended beyond the issue of police violence, prompting people of all backgrounds to confront the depth and breadth of racial inequality in American society. Education is central to either undermining or sustaining racial hierarchy. For much of American history, Blacks were either denied education or provided a segregated education inferior to that available to whites. The demise of de jure segregation fueled hopes that the expansion of educational opportunity would diminish racial inequalities.
Yet, while the promise of education remains undeniable, some aspects of schooling predictably exacerbate racial disparities. This Essay highlights a paradox at the intersection of education and racial justice: selective schools’ laudable embrace of the principle of academic achievement now constitutes an impediment to educational opportunity for Black Americans in both secondary and higher education alike. When schools evaluate applicants on the basis of their prior academic achievement, the educational system becomes stratified on the basis of student achievement. Achievement segregation disadvantages Black Americans. When racial segregation results from achievement segregation, it may be especially difficult to dislodge, given the importance attached to the idea of academic achievement as a desirable basis for choosing among applicants. Nonetheless, this Essay unsettles the justifications that sustain achievement segregation. Doing so is essential to creating educational settings that are more racially equitable.