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September 2023

For Open Admissions, No Tuition!

Supreme Court Axes Affirmative Action

By Amalia and Sade

Supporters of affirmative action protest  in front of Supreme Court on June 29.  (Photo: Jose Luis Magana / AP)

On June 29, by a vote of 6 to 3, the Supreme Court of the United States declared affirmative action programs in college admissions unconstitutional, in a racist ruling tossing out the last scraps of these already minimal measures. This will undoubtedly mean a sharp drop in African American and Latino enrollment at elite American universities, public and private. The next day, the Court nixed the plan to forgive student debt for millions who have gone into hock to get their degrees. The axing of affirmative action comes a year after the Court, that “reactionary institution of unelected, appointed-for-life, black-robed dispensers of capitalist ‘justice’,” overturned Roe v. Wade, the basis for the constitutional right to abortion since 1973.1

The shredding of basic rights, partial reforms and even tokenistic steps like college affirmative action plans is a symptom of capitalism’s advanced state of decay. The education system both reflects and further deepens the vast inequalities in U.S. society. “Achievement gaps” between rich and poor have widened sharply, however they are measured. And since people who are racially oppressed tend to have less, in this racist society built on inequality, the whole set-up underscores deep class and racial disparities. Have “affirmative action” programs in education overcome this? Far from it – these meager programs only elevated small numbers of black students to elite schools. Nonetheless, revolutionary Marxists defend and critically support even these minimal measures against ingrained, systemic racial oppression.

We fight to throw open the doors of the universities to all. To do this requires a revolutionary program to make quality higher education genuinely available. Thus we call for open admissions to all institutions of higher education, the abolition of tuition, and state-paid living stipends for students. This is linked to the Marxist program of revolutionary integrationism, key to black liberation and socialist revolution in the United States, in all spheres of social life, including education. We call for the expropriation without compensation of all the private universities, the abolition of administrations and boards of trustees, and for those who work and study at universities to run them through democratically elected councils.

Having “become steadily more segregated in all parts of the country since 1990,” U.S. schools today are more segregated than they were in the civil rights era (UCLA Civil Rights Project report, December 2020). Most segregated of all are the public schools of New York City, and the deep crisis of education here is compounded by the fact that approximately 10 percent of NYC students are homeless.2 The entrenchment and growth of school segregation in the U.S. is partly a consequence of the 1970s defeat of busing for school integration, at the hands of white racist mobs and liberal Democratic politicians (including Joe Biden). Now the Supreme’s Court’s ruling further heightens racist barriers to the basic democratic right to a quality education. It will take nothing short of a socialist revolution to allow for a truly egalitarian education system.

As in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade’s overturn, the Democratic Party sees the racist ruling on college admissions as an opportunity to make hay and harvest votes. As it issues glib “diversity” and “social justice” sound bites, off the campaign stage it promotes union-busting charter schools that drain money, resources and students from public schools. Democrats preside over unabated racist police murder as mayors of major cities. And as they escalate the anti-China war drive that threatens humanity with World War Three, Joe Biden & Co. head up the U.S./NATO imperialist proxy war against Russia. For the workers, oppressed and youth seeking to defend our rights against Washington and Wall Street’s racist rule, what’s urgently needed is a revolutionary workers party, to bring down the capitalist system.

Rise and Demise of the “Harvard Plan”

Protest march through City College in 1969. Student strike and support from city labor helped win open admissions at CUNY the following year.  (Photo: New York Times)

The overall rubric of “affirmative action” is applied to many policies and programs, but it means something particular with regard to college admissions. Before discussing this, it is important to contrast a key episode from the history of the City University of New York to the rise of affirmative action plans at upper-crust institutions like Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, defendants in the recently decided Supreme Court case.

Amidst upheavals in the 1960s against racist oppression, the lily-white composition of most higher-ed institutions was increasingly challenged. In 1969, African American and Latino students at the City College of New York launched a strike that wound up adopting the demand “Open Admissions for All.” After city labor unions came on board, this led to an important victory: winning open admissions throughout the CUNY system. This was different from just about every variant of what’s called affirmative action. Dramatically increasing access for students from doubly oppressed sectors while offering increased opportunities for working-class whites as well, it had the effect of cutting against racism.3

In contrast, some universities tailored to members of the capitalist elite began adopting what came to be known as the “Harvard Plan.” This maintained highly exclusive admissions policies, but provided a little “diversity” (as opposed to actual equality) – in line with sectors of the ruling class that saw that some “black faces in high places” were needed to help keep the masses in line and administer U.S. imperialism. This was eventually personified by Barack Obama, who after attending elite schools became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990. Cultivated by Goldman Sachs, he became a senator and then the CEO, deporter- and commander-in-chief of U.S. imperialism.

Beginning in 1969, the “Harvard Plan” set the pattern for “selective” (elite) universities to open their doors a crack and bring in a small layer of black students. As student strikes were shaking even this bastion of ruling-class privilege, Harvard administrators “enacted race-conscious, holistic admissions first at the Law School and later at the College,” as the Harvard Crimson (14 April) put it. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that while race could not be the “definite and exclusive” criterion, colleges could (as at Harvard) consider race as one among other factors in admissions decisions.

So it’s not coincidental that Ivy League icon Harvard is one of the two universities featured in the decision that the Supreme Court just issued, known as Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. The other is the University of North Carolina, with an admissions process similar to Harvard’s. While a public institution, UNC is (together with NYU, UCLA, Reed and others) one of the schools sometimes dubbed the “New Ivies.” The Court’s ruling against affirmative action was delivered in a pair of lawsuits brought by Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA), a “legal advocacy organization” headed by longtime conservative activist Edward Blum.

Affirmative action in college admissions has been challenged in court many times since its inception, with a few prominent cases making it to the Supreme Court. While many states and colleges were eliminating or whittling down affirmative-action admissions programs, up until this June the Court’s decisions did not rule out any consideration of applicants’ race. Now, with its ruling in the suits brought by SFFA against Harvard and UNC, the Court has done so.

The Court’s new decision overturns the precedent set in Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case in which a white student sued the University of Michigan’s law school on the grounds that her race was a factor in the decision not to admit her. In Grutter, the Supreme Court ruled that race could be considered, together with other factors, if universities did this in a “narrowly tailored” way. But when a statewide referendum led to Michigan banning “race-conscious” admissions entirely, the Court upheld this in a 2014 decision whose arguments raised echoes of the “states’ rights” banner that Jim Crow politicians waved in the 1950s and ’60s.

What about “Students for Fair Admissions”? Eager to use test cases to strike down legislation and policies on conservatives’ hit list, mega-donors give it millions. Blum, who heads the “Project on Fair Representation” as well as SFFA, has used them to take aim at voting rights and promote the failed effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census (Slate, 25 October 2022). In the 2010s, Blum propelled a case called Fisher v. University of Texas, Austin, in which a white woman sued UT for denying her admission, using trademark racist claims of “reverse discrimination.” Ruling on Fisher in 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the precedent set by Grutter. The 2023 Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case is essentially a second, successful attempt at what Fisher and its backers had not achieved six years ago.

Blum’s SFFA sued both UNC and Harvard in 2014. Plaintiffs claimed UNC discriminated against white and Asian applicants by giving preference to African American, Latino and Native American students. The Harvard case accused the university of seeking to advance less qualified students of other races at the expense of Asians, keeping the latter’s enrollment artificially low through subjective criteria about students’ personality traits. Harvard strongly denied the discrimination against Asian students the plaintiffs alleged and argued that non-race-conscious methods were insufficient for maintaining a diverse student body.

Of course, racist reactionaries don’t give a damn about Asian students. What’s equally certain is that liberal and conservative sectors of the bourgeoisie use, each in their own way, divide-and-conquer tactics to pit sectors of the workers and oppressed against each other. Against this, revolutionaries put forward a program to unite and win the struggle against every form of racist oppression. In the university context, this underscores yet again how crucial it is to fight for open admissions as part of such a program to win genuine equality for all. This is diametrically opposed to a situation in which people are supposed to wage cage-fight combat against each other, in the hope of gaining access to educational class privileges reserved for the capitalist elite and the highest-paid members of its entourage.

Court Debates “Compelling Interest”

On June 29, when the Supreme Court met to issue its ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts read the majority opinion. Then ultra-reactionary Clarence Thomas held forth with an oral concurrence. Justice Sonia Sotomayor followed, reading her dissenting opinion. Like so many other liberal speeches, hers ended with an allusion to Martin Luther King in which she expressed the hope that eventually in America, “the arc of the moral universe will bend toward racial justice.”

Someday over the rainbow won’t cut it – we’ve had it with pious liberal clichés and sermons. All three branches of the government – executive, legislative and judicial – reflect the reality that the bourgeois state is, as Karl Marx put it, the executive committee of the ruling class. The particularly anti-democratic powers of the Supreme Court, like those of the presidency, Senate and Electoral College, go back to their original design as bulwarks for the interests of the slaveowners.4 They help ensure that any gain for the oppressed can be taken away, if it is not militantly defended with the power of the multiracial working class and independent proletarian class politics. Having zero confidence in any part of the capitalist state, we fight for a workers government.

In her lengthy dissenting opinion, Sotomayor repeatedly cited the amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief filed in the SFFA v. Harvard case by 35 top former military leaders, including four ex-chairmen of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. Stating that the U.S. has a “compelling interest” in “diversity” as a matter of “national security,” they expressed particular concern that if the Court ruled against affirmation action, this could negatively affect military service academies.

As the Military Times (29 June) summed up the amicus brief:

“The retired leaders emphasized that the officer corps already is significantly less racially diverse than the enlisted troops. Increasing that gap, they warned, could diminish the military’s legitimacy in the eyes of some Americans, hinder engagement with foreign countries and threaten internal morale.”

In her dissenting opinion, Sotomayor – joined by fellow Obama nominee Kagan and Biden nominee Jackson – highlighted the amicus brief’s argument that during the Vietnam War, lack of diversity “threatened the integrity and performance of the Nation’s military” because it fueled “perceptions of racial/ethnic minorities serving as ‘cannon fodder’ for white military leaders.”5

The Court’s liberal minority, in leaning heavily on arguments advanced by former Pentagon brass (including literal war criminals), underscored a key political reality. Not only has U.S. imperialism’s military been massively boosted in the Obama/Biden years; the Democratic Party has headed most U.S. wars for well over a century. Revolutionary Marxists, at the same time as we oppose discrimination in the military as everywhere else, say: “Not a person, not a penny for the imperialist armed forces,” and salute the heroic Vietnamese fighters whose defeat of U.S. imperialism was a victory for the workers and oppressed worldwide.6

For its part, the Supreme Court majority opinion only mentioned the issue of military academies in a footnote, noting that none were a party to the cases. “This opinion also does not address the issue,” it stated, “in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present” – i.e., the academies were exempted from the ruling. The liberal justices responded that “diverse” leadership is crucial to strategic interests of “the Nation” in the civilian sphere as well as the military. Such debates were an object lesson in divisions within the ruling class over how best to advance U.S. capitalism’s overall interests and imperialist objectives.

Deep Roots of Educational Racism

The education system is “where race and class intersect in the U.S., a country built on a bedrock of capitalist slavery,” as our comrades of Class Struggle Education Workers often stress. “That is why the fight for free quality education for all has been a fundamental issue since the fight for abolition” (Marxism and Education No. 6, January 2022). In the context of the Supreme Court decision, it’s important to look at some of this history.

The withholding of quality education from the black population has been a tool of capitalist oppression since the outset of this nation. In the South, slaves were forbidden from learning to read and write, lest they use it as a tool to escape servitude. After rebellions like the Nat Turner revolt (1831), the slave-owning wing of the ruling class passed additional anti-literacy laws and prohibitions, often for free as well as enslaved black people, and generally opposed public education for poor whites as well. Though after the abolition of chattel slavery former slaves were no longer legally prevented from getting an education, the feasibility of obtaining one was low.

The Freedmen’s Bureau set up a number of “free schools” for the education of black children, but the effort was devastated by the counterrevolutionary overturn of Reconstruction, with white-supremacist thugs terrorizing the schools that did exist. While upper-class whites attended school, and some went on to higher educational institutions, black children rarely had the opportunity, generally remaining in conditions similar to those of their formerly enslaved parents. The adoption of Jim Crow laws, as well as de facto forms of segregation, ensured that the black condition would not improve.7

The Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson centered on the segregation of transportation, but its “separate but equal” precedent was applied to schools as well. The idea of creating separate yet equal-quality facilities for blacks and whites was obviously utter nonsense. Black children’s schools had fewer funds and fewer teachers, they spent less time in the classroom, and this led to lower literacy rates and test scores. With the rise of the post-WWII civil rights movement, the fight for integrated education was at the forefront; if schooling continued to be so overtly unequal, there would be no progress for black Americans. Schools were one of the most volatile sites of civil rights struggle, and white racist terror groups had no problem making black children their targets.

Black children who lived close to white schools were forced to travel long distances to lower-quality black schools. In 1951, Oliver Brown, father of a black child refused admittance to a nearby all-white school, sued the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education decision was delivered, overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” precedent – but it took over a year for the court to deliver its implementation decision.

Known as Brown II, this stated that individual school boards would bear the responsibility of desegregation and should do so “with all deliberate speed.” This joke of a plan gave states and districts even more leeway to refuse integration. Proudly bigoted politicians vowed to dismantle the public school system before allowing for integration; others simply stated that the ruling did not apply to their state. Racist “citizens councils” organized KKK-type terror in their neighborhoods.

After years of struggle, the structure of de jure segregation was struck down. Jim Crow had become an embarrassment and impediment for U.S. imperialism’s self-promotion as a supposed force for “democracy” in its Cold War drive against the Soviet bloc. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, but neither it nor Brown v. Board of Ed applied to the de facto forms of segregation predominant in the North. Segregation was a tool of the racist rulers not just “Down South” but “Up South” too; private-sector measures (such as “red-lining” by real-estate agencies) combined with government policies and the working of the capitalist economic system to produce the North’s de facto segregation. This ensured unequal and segregated housing and schooling, with the added bonus of legal deniability.

A decade after Southern schools began to be integrated, Boston schools were the most segregated in the county. Yet in Northern cities, activists often struggled to even prove that this segregation existed, let alone remedy it. And after the passing of Civil Rights legislation in the 1950s and ’60s, Democrats largely washed their hands of the matter.

In 1974, the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought on behalf of black parents and children against the Boston school system, finding that it had “knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation.” The city’s schools were ordered to begin desegregation by “busing” students to other school districts. Claiming busing would lower their children’s education quality to that of black children, mobs of racist white parents launched a violent backlash. Gathering outside of schools to terrorize and attack black students, they were joined by Klansmen and Nazis.

Against the racist terror, revolutionary Marxists fought for labor/black defense, defending busing and calling for its extension to the suburbs. But busing was defeated in Boston and the backlash against it was further pushed in Congress (together with racist “law-and-order” measures) by Joe Biden, who allied with Republican segregationists like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms. Today, city schools in Boston and across the North remain intensely segregated.

Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

After the inception of affirmative action college admissions programs, by the early 1980s the number of black and Latino students at U.S. colleges and universities had grown somewhat. The modest advances were soon challenged by reactionaries seeking to bar them not only from the hallowed halls of Ivy and other elite universities, but from decent state schools as well. Community colleges, overwhelmingly more diverse and working-class, repeatedly faced budget cuts and tuition hikes.

Long before this summer’s Supreme Court ruling, meanwhile, “race-conscious” admissions were outlawed not only in Michigan but in eight other states, including Arizona, California and Florida. The Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision, based on a case from the University of California, banned racial quotas in admissions, while stating that affirmation action could be constitutional in some circumstances. We do not support quota-based measures, as they are in themselves exclusionary mechanisms, but Bakke, backed by reactionaries around the country, was a stick to beat back gains for minority students.

In 1996, California banned affirmative action in its state and public entities. Within two years, black student enrollment at UCLA was more than halved, to 3.43% (New York Times, 29 June). And this in a city with a long history of black struggle, where some of the most burning outbursts of anger at police terror and racist oppression had exploded. A similar decimation of the share of black students took place in Michigan. In the wake of the new Supreme Court decision, a sharp erosion of the numbers of black students at a large number of U.S. colleges and universities is the expectation for the rest of the country.

For decades, college affirmative action programs were challenged with the argument that they “discriminated” against whites (as well as Asians in the Harvard and UNC suits). From the outset, the programs were designed in a way that led to black people being scapegoated for the worsening conditions of many white students. Today, millions face the crisis of student loans, a despicable feature of the business of higher education. In the aggregate this debt long ago surpassed the total credit card debt in the U.S. and is also greater than the total auto loan debt (Washington Post, 6 March 2012). In large part it affects those from the working class and lower strata of the middle class who don’t receive financial aid and can’t afford to pay outright for their education, feeding resentment against affirmative action.

Another important yet frequently overlooked aspect has to do with the class, income and wealth gap in educational “achievement.” For example, research on the gap in reading and math scores between children of high- and low-income families found it to be more than twice as large as that between white and black students (Child Trends, 22 August 2016). At the same time, the structural racism of American capitalism means that black people, largely concentrated among the working class and poor, often still last-hired, first-fired and least paid, tend to have a lot less wealth and resources than whites. A bedrock of U.S. capitalism since the beginning, racial oppression continues to be so today.

After the Supreme Court decision, the urgency of the situation we face has increased. What we want: not to merely lift small numbers of black and Latino students into elite institutions, maneuvering them around a structure that would otherwise bar them, but to destroy the foundation of the system that produces and depends on such oppression. The working class as a whole – Asian, Latin, black and white, immigrant and U.S.-born – faces the same enemy in achieving a quality education: the capitalist system. At the same time, racial oppression is woven into the fabric of U.S. capitalism, and taking on what Marxists call special oppression is essential to uniting the working class to overthrow this decaying system. Affirmative action admissions programs, never more than a dent in the structure, were never even meant for the vast majority, and now have been consigned to the scrap heap. What is needed is for the entire system of oppression, in all spheres of society, to be uprooted.

Closely linked to the fight for black liberation, the key to universal high-quality, integrated and free education, at all levels, lies in bringing out the power of the multinational, multiethnic proletariat, with a class-struggle program and revolutionary leadership. To win, we have to liberate the resources and wealth needed for education, and all society’s urgent needs, from the death grip of the profit system. ■

  1. 1. See “U.S. Capitalism and Its Supreme Court” and “Free Abortion on Demand: How Revolutionaries Fight for It,” Revolution No. 19, September 2022.
  2. 2. “New York City Schools Most Segregated in the Nation,” Public School Review, 2 July 2022; “More than 104,000 New York City Students Were Homeless Last Year,” New York Times, 22 October 2022.
  3. 3. See “How Open Admissions Was Won in 1969,” Revolution No. 6, April 2009. In 1976, NYC rulers imposed tuition at CUNY. Pushing to roll back open admissions, they succeeded in eliminating it completely by 1999.
  4. 4. See “Slavery and the Constitution,” Revolution No. 17, August 2020.
  5. 5. SFFA v. Harvard dissenting opinion by Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Jackson and Kagan, October 2022. This also quotes a similar amicus brief by the federal government arguing that “the Nation’s military strength” depends on a racially diverse “pipeline of officers ... prepare[d] to lead increasingly diverse forces.”
  6. 6. See “Vietnam: A Historic Defeat for U.S. Imperialism,” Revolution No. 15, September 2018. The 2005 documentary Sir! No Sir! details turmoil and resistance within the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
  7. 7.The Emancipation Proclamation: Promise and Betrayal,” The Internationalist No. 34, March-April 2013.