Defend Affirmative Action and More!

Down With Racist Purge of Universities!

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 813, 7 November 2003.


The June 23 Supreme Court decision striking down the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions point system for minority applicants hammered yet another nail into the coffin of affirmative action. While affirming the notion of “diversity” as a desirable goal, the court ruled unconstitutional one of the programs still available to implement it. At the same time, the judges upheld a more “narrowly tailored” program at the University of Michigan Law School, thus providing a way for colleges to preserve some minimal form of affirmative action. That many liberal proponents of affirmative action have seized upon this to hail the ruling as a major victory for the rights of minorities is nothing less than an admission of their political bankruptcy.

The contradictions in the Supreme Court decision were reflected in the conflicting reactions by black liberals. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund hailed the court ruling as a “victory,” as did Jesse Jackson, who declared that it “sets back the assault by the racial and radical right and the Bush Administration to resegregate the nation.” In contrast, Amsterdam News publisher Wilbert Tatum angrily declared in a 25 June editorial that the court decision “took us 50 more years away from an America that is truly equal under law.”

Both Jackson and Tatum imagine that the Supreme Court decision will, for better or worse, fundamentally alter the condition of black people in this country. This is also the view of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action & Integration, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), which is sponsoring a National Civil Rights March at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus on November 7. On April 1, some 50,000 people turned out for a BAMN-organized rally in defense of affirmative action outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., determined to preserve what little access they have in this profoundly racist society to a decent education and a decent job. The turnout demonstrated the depth of opposition to the racist rollback of affirmative action and other programs even minimally redressing discrimination against black people and other minorities. But far from offering a perspective of independent social struggle, BAMN and other liberals seek to channel the youthful fighters for black rights who are turning out for these protests into the dead end of reliance on the Democratic Party, the Supreme Court and other institutions of racist capitalist rule.

A BAMN press release issued the day of the Supreme Court ruling hailed it as a “historic and momentous victory,” dismissing as “a minor setback” the court’s rejection of the University of Michigan’s undergraduate point system. An opinion piece co-authored by BAMN organizer Kate Stenvig in the University of Michigan newspaper the following day, referring to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling overturning legalized school segregation, enthused: “We have saved Brown v. Board of Education and are now in a stronger position than at any point in the past thirty years to realize the promise of Brown—integration and equality in American education.”

Make no mistake: While the court did not simply do away with affirmative action, as many feared it might, the ruling creates a significant new obstacle to minority enrollment in law schools, medical schools and the best universities. Not least, administrations will be hesitant to shell out the huge additional sums for increased admissions staff—as much as two million dollars in Michigan’s case—to satisfy the Supreme Court’s requirements. And though the ruling effectively overturned anti-affirmative action court decisions in Texas and several other Southern states, it will have no effect in California and Washington, where affirmative action was banned in state universities not by federal court decisions but by state referendums. And it does nothing to prevent other states from now instituting their own bans.

Even if the Supreme Court had fully endorsed the Michigan plan, it would still have been nothing more than a retention of the miserable, racist status quo. The Spartacist League and Spartacus Youth Clubs defend affirmative action in university admissions because it has meant gains, however minimal, against the inherent race and class bias in higher education under capitalism. But as we asserted against the likes of BAMN in an article written before the Supreme Court decisions (WV No. 801, 11 April):

“The stark truth is that there is no way to overcome entrenched racial oppression within the framework of capitalism, in the universities or elsewhere. Affirmative action programs were set up as a sop to defuse social struggle and in order to create and co-opt a ‘talented tenth’ of black middle-class professionals. But these paltry, tokenistic efforts never made a dent in the deep-seated oppression of the black ghetto masses, whose condition has continued to deteriorate over the past few decades.”

We fight for free, quality, integrated education for all. To provide real access to higher education, we call for nationalizing the private universities and for open admissions and free tuition with a state-paid living stipend for students. We demand full remedial programs at the universities, an end to the racist “tracking” system in the high schools and genuine integration of the schools, including the aggressive implementation of busing. We seek to mobilize labor’s social power in defense of even such partial steps toward racial integration and equality as are possible under capitalism, but we do not sow illusions that integration and equality, in education or any sphere of American society, can be achieved through Supreme Court rulings or liberal pressure politics. Full social and political equality for black people can only be achieved through workers revolution and the creation of an egalitarian socialist society.

Racist Rulers to Ghetto Youth: Drop Dead!

Even if the doors of the select universities—those most affected by the Supreme Court ruling—were opened far wider than they are today, most working-class and minority students would still be attending regional state schools and community colleges. There the question of who attends turns less on selective admissions policies and more on who can—or cannot—afford the cost of school. Public universities jacked up tuition by an average of 14 percent this year, the steepest increase in over a generation. Students faced increases of 30 percent at the University of California, 28 percent at the State University of New York and 25 percent at the City University of New York. This is devastating for poor and working-class students, many of whom work full-time and live on shoestring budgets to put themselves through school.

According to U.S. government statistics, 48 percent of college-qualified high school graduates were prevented by financial constraints from attending a four-year institution, and 22 percent from attending any college at all. And the numbers of those shut out from higher education are escalating as state and local governments ramp up tuition and gut funding for these schools and campus administrations fire professors, slash the number of classes and cancel remedial programs.

To gauge the impact of tuition hikes, consider that today almost three-quarters of the 13.6 million undergraduates in this country are what the Department of Education calls “non-traditional” students—that is, they do not depend on their parents for support, or they have returned to school after a number of years in the workforce. More than one-quarter of women college students in this country are raising children while pursuing their studies. For hundreds of thousands of such students, a tuition increase of $950—the amount of the increase this year at the State University of New York—means the difference between staying in school and being deprived of an education. In the California community college system alone, fully 90,000 students were driven out last spring by budget cuts and tuition increases.

In September, Republican members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, sensing a hot election campaign issue, published a report, The College Cost Crisis. Rejecting “a dramatic increase in federal funding for higher education,” the report took aim at “wasteful spending by college and university management.” The unspoken message: Take it out of the hides of university employees. This was highlighted by the strike this summer at Yale, that bastion of racist class privilege where campus workers earn less in one year than students pay in tuition and room and board. Meanwhile, faculty salaries across the country are being driven down as permanent staff have been replaced by part-timers, who now account for more than 43 percent of teaching positions and earn an average of less than $20,000 per year, usually with no benefits.

Black and Hispanic students are under siege today because the capitalist rulers see no need to spend resources educating people they will only employ, if at all, at starvation-wage “McJobs.” Both capitalist parties, the Democrats no less than the Republicans, defend the priorities of the ruling class: Spend billions on prisons, weapons and the colonial occupation of Iraq, while shutting down schools, factories and hospitals. Black youth, particularly black men, are rapidly becoming “missing persons” from a society that has locked them into ghettos, with no exit from poverty and a likely stretch in prison other than by enlisting as cannon fodder for the imperialist military. As a result of the “war on drugs,” the prison population (over 2.1 million) is now four times what it was 30 years ago. One in eight black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is currently behind bars, and 28 percent of all black men can expect to be imprisoned some time in their lives.

For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

In an undated flyer for the November 7 march and a “New Civil Rights Movement” conference that weekend, BAMN crows: “The historic civil rights march on April 1st, 2003 achieved its aim! We did it—we organized, we marched, we fought and we won!” To cover for its tailing of bourgeois liberals, BAMN makes it seem like there was a solid wall of opposition from the bourgeoisie to affirmative action.

In fact, an unprecedentedly wide range of bourgeois forces—including 24 states and territories, 65 Fortune 500 companies and many military leaders—submitted amicus briefs to the court defending the University of Michigan affirmative action program. In effect, school resegregation has proceeded to such a point that much of the ruling class fears that it will no longer have enough minority managers and military officers. One brief submitted by 29 generals, admirals and U.S. Senators underlined the importance of ROTC programs on college campuses in providing officers for the military, whose ranks are heavily black and Latino. The Pentagon brass frankly acknowledged that before they had a significant layer of black officers, the military’s “racial problem was so critical that it was on the verge of self-destruction,” noting that during the Vietnam War “racial tensions reached a point where there was an inability to fight.”

BAMN’s call for a “new civil rights movement” is simply a cloak for a liberal perspective limited to pressuring the capitalists and their courts to grant minimal concessions. The mass of black and white activists who were the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s wrote a heroic chapter in the fight for black equality in racist America, shattering Jim Crow in the South and gaining formal legal equality for black people. However, liberal leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. worked to keep the movement confined within the straitjacket of pressure politics, lobbying for concessions from those sworn enemies of black liberation, the Democratic Party and the capitalist government.

Today, BAMN promotes what was precisely the central weakness of the civil rights movement. The platform of the April 1 rally was chock-full of NAACP liberals and Democratic Party politicians like presidential hopeful Al Sharpton. In California, BAMN has concentrated on circulating petitions to pressure the University of California Board of Regents to demand the resignation of notorious black conservative Ward Connerly, who spearheaded the drive for a referendum ending state affirmative action programs in California and is now pushing a similar initiative in Michigan. In appealing to the UC Board of Regents, an institution presided over by the governor and other state officials, BAMN is looking to the very university administration and capitalist government that are axing higher education opportunities for minorities and others.

The same week as the affirmative action decision, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law that outlawed gay sex. We are far from indifferent to such occasional nods in the direction of elementary humanism, including by a Supreme Court whose rulings more often read as if they were written by a White Citizens’ Council. However, it is illusory to imagine that the road to achieving lasting gains lies through a strategy of pressuring the Supreme Court or other capitalist institutions. Today, as in the past, it will take massive social struggle to gain any improvement in the lives of workers and oppressed minorities in this society.

The starting point is the understanding that it is the multiracial working class that has the social power to lead all the oppressed in struggle against capitalism. We seek to mobilize the working class in a fight for free, quality education and jobs for all, particularly reaching out to the masses of unemployed minority youth and women through special union recruitment and training programs. The main obstacle to mobilizing the power of labor is the trade-union bureaucracy, which ties the proletariat to its class enemy, primarily through the Democratic Party, of which the trade-union leadership is a key component. To unchain the power of labor, it is necessary to break with the Democratic Party and forge a revolutionary workers party.

Just as it took the Civil War to smash chattel slavery and establish public education for black people in this country, it will take a socialist revolution to sweep away the entire capitalist system and lay the basis for wiping out the centuries-old legacy of racial oppression. Only in this way can the accumulated knowledge and culture of civilization be truly appropriated by those who are today deprived of that birthright.

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