After suffering decades of attacks and setbacks, the limited form in which affirmative action exists today is again in the cross hairs, facing its most serious challenge in nearly a decade.
On Oct. 10, the U.S. Supreme Court heard nearly an hour-and-a-half of oral arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Abigail Fisher, a white UT-Austin applicant, has charged the UT system with “reverse discrimination,” claiming that the policy of including race as a factor in determining admission led to her being denied entry to UT-Austin. The school administration says that Fisher would not have been accepted even if race were not a factor in the admissions process. She has since graduated from another university.
The UT system’s admissions policy is based on the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger. In that case, two white students sued the University of Michigan with essentially the same argument used in the Fisher case. They claimed that UM’s affirmative action program caused them to be denied admission. The Court ruled 5-4 against Grutter and upheld that race could be used as a factor in college admissions programs.
However, while the Grutter ruling upheld the use of affirmative action to further diversity, it weakened the policy’s use as a means to correct historic discrimination. It was a means to whittle away at affirmative action, another in a series of attacks which began with the Bakke case in 1978.
Given the balance of forces on the Supreme Court, there is justified concern that a decision in the Fisher case could nearly dismantle affirmative action throughout the U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts has infamously claimed that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
This thoroughly white supremacist perspective implies that affirmative action programs, which are designed to address centuries of racism and provide some measure of equality in jobs and education, are themselves a form of discrimination. It is this perspective and the forces behind it which have led the charge throughout the last half century to roll back affirmative action and other gains that were won through struggle by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
Rollback of affirmative action
The Bakke case, heard before the Supreme Court in 1978, began the erosion of affirmative action programs in the U.S. Allen Bakke, a white medical student, sued the University of California at Davis Medical School for “reverse discrimination” after he was denied admission.
UC-Davis used a system of racial quotas and set aside a certain number of openings specifically for people of color. Quota systems, employed even by the Nixon administration, were the first manifestation of affirmative action programs in this country to achieve inclusion — after centuries of institutionalized exclusion from jobs and education — for people of color and women.
By a vote of 5-4, the Court declared the quota system unconstitutional.
Since then, affirmative action programs have faced many legal attacks that have further affected their effectiveness. In recent years, several states, including California, Nebraska, Michigan and Arizona, have passed ballot initiatives barring the use of any form of affirmative action in jobs and education. A similar initiative is on Oklahoma’s ballot this year.
National Public Radio reported that after California’s ban was passed in 1996, every UC campus reported “a very significant percentage” decline in the number of students of color who both applied and were admitted to the system.
Even in the Fisher case, the predominating arguments in defense of UT’s affirmative action program center on the value of diversity in the classroom for all students’ education.
However, what this line of argument fundamentally obscures are the centuries of brutal exploitation of Native people, the horrific enslavement of African people and the discrimination against Latinos/as. This country’s sordid racist history includes the overturning of post-Civil War Reconstruction and the decades of institutionalized Jim Crow laws and practices.
Racist discrimination exists today in housing, health care and education. It can be seen in the inequities in the criminal justice system and the prison population. It can be seen in the unemployment figures and by nearly any other measure of this society.
Racism integral to capitalism
It was struggle that ushered in programs like affirmative action, and struggle that is needed to defend the gains that the racist right wing is hell-bent on upending. The Civil Rights movement, Black freedom struggles, and rebellions of Black people across the country against extreme poverty and unemployment pushed the U.S.government into implementing affirmative action.
When the Supreme Court’s Bakke ruling was issued in 1978, more than 35,000 people – mostly Black — marched in Washington, D.C., in protest.
This latest attack on affirmative action comes at a time when education and other public services are under attack as federal and state governments ruthlessly implement austerity programs and slash budgets. With tuition skyrocketing, the doors to higher education are being closed to many students from working-class, African-American, Latino/a and other oppressed communities. This year, student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion. On average, students incur more than $26,000 in debt to the banks on loans for higher education.
Everyone should have the right to an education, without having to mortgage their futures away to the banks. Education could be free at all levels, but instead of being used for the benefit of society, it’s another way for the wealthy 1% to garner even more profits.
As the capitalist crisis deepens and states slash education budgets, spending on prisons keeps rising. The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world with more than 2 million people locked up; more than half are Black, Latino/a and members of other oppressed nationalities.
Capitalism relies on racism, sexism and bigotry to keep us divided. Unity and solidarity are the best tools to use to stop the attacks on affirmative action and to turn the tide against the assaults on working-class and oppressed peoples. Mass struggle is needed to defend all of the gains made through struggle, which will always be endangered in this profit-driven system.
A determined fightback is essential, one that aims to ultimately build a society based on solidarity, not racism and bigotry, and where providing human needs, not profits are the goals.