The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday against the legality of affirmative action admissions practices at colleges and universities. Ruling on two distinct cases, the court declared the admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina to be unlawful.
This move, a major shift from 50 years of precedent, raises numerous questions pertaining to the nature of racism in American capitalism, the education system, and the culture war. Marxists must analyze these questions and point the way forward for the struggle against racism and inequality.
The modern conception of affirmative action dates back half a century, to a decision by the Supreme Court in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Allan Bakke, a white medical school applicant to UC Davis, brought the case to court after being rejected by the school, which at the time set aside 16 seats for racial minorities.
The Supreme Court ruled against the use of quotas, but nonetheless allowed for the consideration of race in the admissions process. The motivation did not pertain to reparations nor to compensation for unequal access to education, but rather, the idea that creating a “diverse classroom environment” could improve the quality of the educational experience.
Since then, affirmative action practices have remained a polarizing topic, with liberals generally arguing for their necessity in order to diversify college campuses and workplaces, and conservatives arguing that it is against the spirit of meritocracy. In this sense, Thursday’s ruling is a part of the larger culture war, in which ruling-class institutions spotlight the most divisive issues in American society as a means of dividing and confusing the working class at a time of worsening living standards and capitalist crisis.
Capitalism, racism, and scarcity
In analyzing this question, Marxists must state first and foremost that American capitalist society indeed has racism built into its foundations. Modern American capitalism was built on the basis of the enslavement of African people, the annexation of large parts of Mexico, and other historic crimes against the exploited and oppressed. Naturally, the effects of this history continue today, with Black workers, Latino workers, and other racial minorities experiencing not only exploitation as workers, but also racial discrimination.
For this reason, the notion of “affirmative action” has become widespread, particularly among liberals, in the decades since the civil rights movement. This is the broad idea that, due to this legacy of racial discrimination, individuals from such backgrounds should have an explicit leg up when it comes to accessing jobs and education, and/or the need to prioritize diversity in campuses and workplaces, for instance through so-called a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) framework.
The court’s ruling immediately produced a flurry of opinion pieces from liberals and conservatives alike, analyzing some of the various angles of the affirmative action debate, albeit always within the narrow framework of the logic and limitations of capitalism. In other words, they take as a given the existence of such things as elite colleges, expensive education, and limited spaces for access to these things. As Marxists, we must highlight the following: under capitalism, these policies are focused on dividing up artificially scarce jobs, resources, and educational opportunities among the working class.
In essence, the capitalist class keeps nine-tenths of the metaphorical pie, then doles out crumbs to the working masses while creating all manner of conflict over how best to divy up those crumbs. This is the underlying economic basis of the continuation of all forms of discrimination and prejudice, which are vital tools for the capitalist class to maintain their rule.
Who does this ruling affect?
In the specific case of the SCOTUS ruling on college admissions, we are looking at a very narrow slice of higher education—i.e., the admissions practices at the most elite colleges and universities, since most colleges and universities do not require or use “race-conscious” policies. As a New York Times article explained:
The Supreme Court’s decision striking down affirmative action will very likely have powerful consequences for elite college admissions, potentially limiting the pool of Black and Hispanic students at the most selective universities and affecting the diversity of future leaders in business, government and beyond.
But the effect of race-conscious admissions was always limited to a relatively small number of students. For the vast majority, these schools are not an option—academically or financially.
Many head straight into the workforce after high school or attend less selective universities that do not weigh race and ethnicity in admissions. At least a third of all undergraduate students—including half of Hispanic undergraduates—attend community colleges, which typically allow open enrollment.
The article continues:
Fewer than 200 selective universities are thought to practice race-conscious admissions, conferring degrees on about 10,000 to 15,000 students each year who might not otherwise have been accepted, according to a rough estimate by Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University. That represents about 2% of all Black, Hispanic or Native American students in four-year colleges.
Liberals, of course, argue that the question of “representation” still matters. Some, as we will see below, even openly acknowledge that these elite campuses essentially serve as the pipeline of individuals who will later control all the major institutions in American society—and it is desirable, in their view, that racial minorities be included so as to have a “seat at the table.” This is a classic instance of the poisonous arguments of identity politics: change and “diversify” a few seats at the top of society, while leaving the racist and exploitative capitalist edifice as a whole unchanged.
In the Journal podcast, Doug Belkin of the Wall Street Journal bluntly explained what is really at stake in this specific case:
Universities, especially selective universities, are kind of the sorting hats for American culture. Eight US presidents went to Harvard University. That’s not an accident. Colleges decide who the best and the brightest are. They are the gatekeepers to the American meritocracy. So if you have Harvard or Yale stamped on your resume, that will open doors for the rest of your life. And it means something that will inform the power structure of the country, so there’s a tremendous amount of focus on the admissions process at universities.
In reality, as long as capitalism remains, the “power structure of the country” will remain fundamentally unchanged. For our part, we stand, not for insignificant and symbolic tweaks, but for the outright abolition of such “gatekeepers of American meritocracy.”
Another important point to note is that affirmative action is not a particularly popular concept outside of liberal editorial boards and academia. Last month, a Pew Research poll found that more Americans disapprove than approve of colleges considering race or ethnicity in admissions practices. Overall, half of Americans disapprove, 33% approve, and 16% are not sure. Among Black and Hispanic Americans, more people approve than in the general population, but it still does not reach even 50% outright approval in either of these demographics.
Speaking to the Washington Post in October, a white nurse from Missouri expressed her somewhat conflicted feelings on the matter.
“It is important to have a race-neutral approach to getting into college … Nobody’s ever helped by giving people something they haven’t earned through their own hard work.” But Meeks said she values racial diversity and worries white people too often are given privilege. She wants college opportunities open to all. “I do want every kid, no matter where they grow up, or what the color of their skin is, I want them to have the ability to get into college if they put the work in.”
This indicates a healthy instinct that there must be an alternative to the all-or-nothing manner in which this issue is framed in the media, showing the potential for a working-class program of free, high-quality education for all to reframe the entire debate.
Despite the relative lack of active enthusiasm for affirmative action among their base, the Democrats are preparing to use this as part of their arsenal of cynical arguments in future elections. Biden has said he disagrees with the court’s decision, and postured to the media about how this “isn’t a normal court.” As 2024 approaches, the Democrats will beat the drum about how the court is already “so conservative” that “we can’t afford” to let it go further to the right, etc. But after decades of these constant alarm bells and various empty promises, more and more workers are realizing that both major parties represent their class enemy and that all of these judges are reactionary.
It must be also mentioned that the liberal socialists have been particularly pitiful on this question. Jacobin magazine chimed in with a few meek comments on the matter, including an article on how the ruling still allows for “race-conscious admissions” that might better allow for “left-wing rationales for affirmative action,” and another article which calls for Biden to pack the Supreme Court as a solution.
Others have pointed to the continued existence of so-called legacy admissions as well as preference for donors, which is a fair enough point, but only scratches the surface of the real issue. In other words, the reformists are invariably expressing only the mildest left-liberal arguments on this matter.
For workers’ democracy and socialist superabundance!
We, on the other hand, see the potential for a world with enough quality jobs, education, housing, healthcare, and much more for everyone. The resources and technology to achieve this exist—but it will require a socialist revolution to make it a reality. A revolutionary socialist program of jobs and education for all can cut across the culture-war divisions that are whipped up by both bourgeois parties. Furthermore, such a program is the only viable way of achieving reparations for slavery.
A workers’ government would pour resources into building a state-of-the-art education system, free for all, from the cradle to the grave. The quality of education at all public universities would be raised to the level of the current “elite” schools and beyond. Alongside a program of universal jobs, affordable housing, and free, high-quality healthcare, this will lay the basis for future generations to rid human society of racism and oppression altogether and allow for unfettered cultural and intellectual development for everyone.