Workers Vanguard No. 1045
2 May 2014
As Bourgeoisie Touts 1964 Civil Rights Act
Supreme Court Knifes Affirmative Action, Again
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the politicians turned out in droves—the president, both generations of George Bushes, black establishment types. For three days in early April, the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, oozed with oily words about equality and opportunity. Outside, demonstrators shackled themselves to a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in protest against the Obama administration’s massive deportation of immigrants. The high-profile celebration was no solace to the black masses, whose hellish conditions of life—mass chronic unemployment, cop terror, crumbling schools, poverty and hunger—define the racial oppression inherent in American capitalism.
Two weeks after the Austin “Civil Rights Summit,” the Supreme Court took a knife to what remained of affirmative action, upholding in a six-to-two vote an amendment to the Michigan state constitution that bans the consideration of race in university and college admissions. The Supreme Court majority’s decision was a bald assertion of “states’ rights,” the rallying cry of the slaveholders in the Civil War. The same court that last year gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act now upheld the supposed democratic right of voters to close yet another door on the victims of racist discrimination.
The Supreme Court ruling was the latest blow in a decades-long offensive to roll back one of the more minimal gains of the civil rights movement. Affirmative action allowed a small percentage of black and Latino youth to overcome racial barriers keeping them out of higher education. For this layer, the shredding of preferential admissions has been catastrophic. Between 2006, when the Michigan ban was passed, and 2012, black enrollment at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor dropped by a third even as overall enrollment grew by 10 percent. Seven other states have similar bans, and now the reactionary Project on Fair Representation is taking aim at affirmative action at Harvard, the University of North Carolina and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The ruling was another victory for Chief Justice John Roberts, whose philosophy of Constitutional originalism grew out of the racist reaction to civil rights-era court decisions acknowledging that black people have some rights. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressed the sentiment of those in the bourgeoisie concerned with maintaining a layer of black and Latino professionals—supervisors, administrators, marketing agents, etc.—to further ruling class interests in a “global society.” The capitalist rulers have also found it useful to have minorities serve as government officials (and judges) to shove austerity and racist repression down the population’s throat, not to mention as military officers to lead black and Latino troops against dark-skinned people around the world.
In the face of racist attack, the remnants of affirmative action should be defended. But even at its height, this tokenistic measure never made a dent in the deep-seated oppression of the mass of the black and Latino population. Now, as public education funding is slashed, tuition costs explode and families drown in debt, the top state and private campuses are becoming even whiter and more elite. We call to nationalize the private universities, for open admissions with no tuition and state-paid living stipends, and for remedial programs to enable students in the inner cities to catch up with graduates of well-funded suburban and private schools. These demands cut against the capitalist rulers’ use of affirmative action to set whites against minorities and men against women in competition over slices of the shrinking pie.
The Supreme Court case pitted the liberal Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (or BAMN—By Any Means Necessary) against Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette. In 2012, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that Michigan’s ban on affirmative action was unconstitutional, leading Schuette to appeal to the Supreme Court. BAMN filed a brief supporting that appeal, arguing in a press statement that this would give the Supreme Court an opportunity to “strike down all of the anti-affirmative action laws” (4 February 2013). With this extraordinarily blind faith in the racist legal system, BAMN—whose clarion call is for a “new civil rights movement”—echoes the MLK-era liberals in sowing dangerous illusions in the capitalist state.
The civil rights struggles profoundly shook the racist American capitalist order, shattering the deep conservatism and anti-Communism of the early Cold War against the Soviet Union. The fight against Jim Crow segregation paved the way for the mass protest movements that followed—against U.S. imperialism’s dirty war in Vietnam and for the rights of women, gays and others. But from its outset, the civil rights movement was dominated by a middle-class leadership wedded to Democratic Party liberalism. The aim of this leadership, whose most effective exponent was King, was to pressure the courts and the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations to grant formal, legal equality to black people in the South.
The gains that the civil rights struggles achieved lay largely in the realm of formal democracy, such as voting rights and an end to legal segregation, later extended to increasing college admissions for minorities and women. But the liberal-led civil rights movement did not and could not challenge the root cause of black oppression: the capitalist profit system, which in the U.S. was built on the forcible segregation of the mass of black people at the bottom. The civil rights movement smashed its head against this fact in the mid 1960s when it swept North, where segregation could not be addressed through abolishing outmoded Jim Crow laws. Northern ghettos exploded in rage over unfulfilled expectations of equality.
From the 1970s on, the capitalist rulers have rolled back black rights. Black children are more segregated in the public school system today than at any time since 1968. In the North, busing and other school integration programs were minimal and short-lived, beset by racist mobs and betrayed by liberal politicians. In the South, events played out differently but with the same result. As investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones explained in her study of Tuscaloosa, Alabama (“Segregation Now,” The Atlantic, May 2014):
“Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, typically as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa’s—back toward segregation. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades.”
Separate is no more equal today than it was 50 years ago. Segregated schools pack black and Latino students in like prisoners, with metal detectors, video cameras, monitoring by security guards, drug testing and locker searches. Meanwhile, charter schools and voucher programs suck money from already impoverished inner-city schools as well as further the nationwide assault on teachers unions.
Treating poor and minority children like criminals is the “training” the racist capitalist rulers give to those they consider surplus. More black people today have spent time in the U.S. prison system than were enslaved in 1850. With the prisons full to bursting with victims of the racist “war on drugs,” the Justice Department announced on April 23 that it will expand a program of clemency for nonviolent felons who have been locked up at least ten years. The several hundred who are likely to benefit from such a break are a drop in the bucket of the overall prison population. And as the Black Agenda Report’s managing editor Bruce Dixon noted in a 23 April article: “At the rate the pipelines are pumping them in, their cells will be refilled in a month or two, no problem.” Dixon continues, “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this clemency initiative is nothing more than a lazy, cynical and nearly empty gesture” by which the Obama administration “will buy some black votes and good will in 2014 and beyond.”
The same ruling class that for decades has consigned black and Latino youth to prison hell has also been carrying out a full-bore offensive against the trade unions, of which black workers form a significant component. In response, the pro-capitalist labor “leadership” has rolled over and played dead. What is needed is to forge a workers party that can fuse the anger of the ghetto and barrio masses with the latent social power of the working class, whose labor makes this profit system run.
In 1872, Fredrick Douglass, who had fought his way out of slavery, educated himself and served as a radical leader of the abolitionist movement, observed: “The cunning ex-slaveholder sets those who should be his enemies to fighting each other and thus diverts attention from himself. Educate the colored children and white children together in your day and night schools throughout the South, and they will learn to know each other better, and be better able to cooperate for mutual benefit.” Douglass made this statement in the midst of the Reconstruction era following the smashing of the slavocracy in the Civil War. It was the betrayal of Reconstruction by the Northern bourgeoisie that sealed the fate of black people as an oppressed race-color caste.
To bring about genuine equality requires the destruction of existing class relations and the passing of power into the hands of the multiracial working class. The workers in power will use the social wealth produced by labor to rebuild this country, creating the conditions for the full integration of black people in a socialist society.