In an unsurprising yet still disgusting decision in July, the right-wing Supreme Court attacked affirmative action, ruling against the practice of colleges considering the impact of race as a factor in admissions. This decision, which came out of two separate cases for Harvard and the University of North Carolina, is the latest in a series of reactionary attacks by the Supreme Court on already marginalized people.
Affirmative action was among many major gains won by the Civil Rights Movement. Legalized segregation denied Black people and other people of color access to most universities in the country. While some Black colleges were opened to give Black students access to higher education, the movement fought for and ultimately won formal desegregation, and in doing so put pressure on historically white institutions to begin to accept students of color through the creation of affirmative action policies.
Turning Back The Clock
Affirmative action allowed universities to consider the obvious: that if admissions policies only looked at grades and achievement, they would only admit the students that had the resources, time, and money to get those results – which would always exclude students of color. And because higher education is a doorway to higher-paying and more influential jobs, these exclusionary practices would be recursive, creating a feedback loop for generations of students of color. While affirmative action might not be “fair” to every single student, it is a policy for an unfair world. As socialists, we support equity-driven affirmative action programs that give opportunities to people who have continually been denied them, and we fight for a truly equal world free of racism where the playing field for all will be genuinely leveled.
We fight not only for progressive admissions policies, but for a whole set of reforms to the education system which would make it far more accessible to Black students in particular. A cancellation of student debt would disproportionately benefit Black graduates who hold, on average, $25,000 more debt than their white peers. Black students are more likely to go to for-profit colleges that notoriously leech money from vulnerable young people looking to advance their education. Free, public college would dramatically reduce the space for these parasitic corporations to take advantage of Black students.
Opponents of affirmative action have cynically argued that the program values race over merit and therefore will increasingly hurt Asian Americans, who studies suggest are performing better in school than other races including white students, from attending good colleges. In reality, Asian Americans have historically been denied access to college along with their Black and Latino peers in favor of white students. In the 1980s a predominantly Asian American-led group called the Student Coalition for Fair Admissions organized in college campuses in California, namely UC Berkeley, to fight against the colleges’ failures to accept not just Asian Americans but all people of color into their universities.
Unity like this is the exact reason why attacks on affirmative action are so useful to the ruling class, because these efforts to organize across racial divides are a threat to their power. This latest decision from the Supreme Court is nakedly stoking divisions between sections of marginalized working-class people, for the benefit of the most well-off in society – as evidenced by the fact that they struck down affirmative action, but left ‘legacy admissions’ intact. Legacy admissions favor students whose parents attended the same university, overwhelmingly benefitting the wealthiest and most well-connected students. We need to reject these attempts at division and take the lessons from struggles like the Civil Rights movement and the Student Coalition for Fair Admissions and use them to defend affirmative action, win free public college for all, and cancel student debt.
Nationwide college enrollment rates have dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022. The biggest reason for this is the increased cost of college in the country which has presented a real obstacle for many workers being able to afford to go to college. The issue of affordability is particularly consequential to students of color who are less able to save up the money or get loans to attend college. Increasingly, the main obstacle to students of all races being able to attend college is less tied to specific racist policies from these colleges, and rather the extreme cost of higher education.
These factors point to why we need to build a larger movement that not only fights to defend affirmative action but also for free college and to cancel student debt. This can be done through building a movement based on fighting tactics, many of which can be taken from previous struggles around education and the Civil Rights movement before us, such as walk-outs, protests, and working to develop unions in colleges across the nation that can use their labor power to fight against these insane prices of college.
On top of these movements we must also call on socialist candidates like Cornel West to take up this struggle within their campaigns and use their campaigns as a tool to further build a movement that can defend affirmative action and win free college and the cancellation of student debt.