Since its inception in the 1960s, affirmative action has been constitutionally embattled, emotionally fraught and politically divisive.

Last week’s announcement by the U.S. Census Bureau that births to racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. now outnumber births to whites promises that the quest for diversity in American institutions won’t be getting any less complicated.

The political squabble over Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren’s disputed geneology -- she was variously listed as a “Native American” and “woman of color” when she was on the law school faculties of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania -- has inadvertently underscored the enormous appetite of elite institutions to celebrate diversity in their ranks. But what should be the goal of a nation speeding so rapidly toward diversity that it will soon be without a single racial majority? Should colleges still emphasize racial balance, apportioning opportunity in order to give a leg up to racial and ethnic groups that historically suffered discrimination?

Asians are one such group. Yet at the University of California at Berkeley, the crown jewel of California’s state university system and one of the most competitive schools in the nation, Asians are a plurality, making up more than 40 percent of the student body despite being only 5 percent of the U.S. population and 13 percent of California’s. Blacks, by contrast, make up about 12.3 percent of the U.S. but only 3 percent of Berkeley students (and 6 percent of California’s population).

Income Distribution

If college is the most reliable gateway to middle-class success -- and elite universities are gateways to even greater opportunities -- we can expect to see a disproportionately high number of Asians at the top of the income scale and a similarly weighted proportion of blacks and Hispanics settling at the bottom.

That’s precisely how income in the U.S is distributed. Asians are the highest-earning group in the nation. Whites on average earn slightly less. Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, along with blacks and American Indians earn far less.

There are many factors that contribute to such disparities. Yet the maneuvering required to expand opportunity and success more broadly is bound to meet with practical frustrations, along with continued constitutional challenges.

The Supreme Court has already placed restrictions on college diversity programs, and may add another layer of limits when it decides a Texas case scheduled to be argued this fall.

Meanwhile, a fierce political battle rages between older whites associated with the Republican Party and younger, browner Democrats over the allocation of public resources. (Medicare, for example, benefits the first group, while the Democrats’ health-care reform benefits the second.) Accommodating such competing claims in an era of slow economic growth and high government debt will shape American politics for the foreseeable future.

Yet there is one arena in which the interests of all -- young, old, black, brown, white, Asian -- converge: education. All Americans have a stake in enabling young nonwhites to obtain decent-paying jobs, which in addition to allowing them to raise and educate their own families, would also make it possible for them to pay the taxes that support the high levels of entitlement spending dedicated to retiring baby boomers.

Growing Pay Gap

The key to such jobs is education. College graduates earned an average of $1,053 a week in 2011 and had an unemployment rate almost half that of high school graduates, who earned an average of $638 a week. This pay gap continues to grow.

While half of Asians in the U.S. obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, only about 20 percent of blacks, and about 14 percent of Hispanics, graduate college. SAT scores tell a similar story, with Asians and whites significantly outscoring blacks and Hispanics in both math and critical reading.

Despite such grim statistics, California and Texas, the nation’s most populous states -- and ones where whites are not a majority -- have responded to deficit pressures by slashing their education budgets. This is the policy equivalent of devouring the seed corn.

Affirmative action comes late in the human development cycle. By the time many Americans reach college age, the course of a lifetime has been set. If the U.S. is to achieve its goal of a multiracial society that provides equal opportunity for all, policy makers must target preschool, elementary and secondary education, where the foundation of success or failure is built. Too many black and Hispanic youths grow up in poor neighborhoods where they attend racially and economically segregated schools that deliver subpar education, with tragic consequences.

Creating a racially, culturally diverse environment on college campuses is a worthy goal. But without better public schools for the emerging American majority, it will never be fully realized. If, on the other hand, the U.S. focuses on the base problem -- failing younger students trapped in failing public schools -- diversity goals at institutions further up the ladder will partly resolve themselves.

As the census data made clear, there isn’t much margin for error. In roughly a decade, today’s ethnic minorities will be a majority of the nation’s under-18 population. Until schools in their neighborhoods are producing large numbers of college-ready graduates, the nation won’t be able to ride that demographic wave to success.

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