In a decision issued April 22, the United States Supreme Court held 6-2 that the electorate can vote to ban the use of race-conscious admissions policies (commonly referred to as “affirmative action”) by State Colleges and Universities. No majority of Justices could decide exactly why such a ban should stand, but six voted that it should. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, and Justice Elena Kagan didn’t take part in the case.
The ruling strikes a huge blow to proponents of race-conscious policies, and to the workers’ struggle. To be clear, while race-conscious admissions policies never will bring a wholesale solution or end to racial oppression and inequality in our society, they are critical to combating the exclusion of non-whites from accessing higher education. And, in a society where level of education often is dispositive of the ability to find employment and earn a living wage, and, in turn, access quality health care and housing, higher education is a right to which we all must have access.
At issue in this particular case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, was a Michigan ban on consideration of race in admission to the state’s colleges and universities. In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan’s use of race as a factor in admissions policies (although such policies must meet very particular standards). In response, three years later in 2006, voters amended the Michigan Constitution to ban the use of race.
The Court’s explanation for upholding that ban is that voters have the right to enact a law that reflects their views on race-conscious polices. This sounds odd, even to those in the legal community—every law student is taught that the Constitution protects the minority from oppression by the majority, and that the Supreme Court exists to ensure this protection. This would seem a prime example of race-based discrimination and oppression.
But in this case, the Court said the ban does not reflect a racially discriminatory purpose. Despite the history of this particular ban, let alone the history of race-based oppression in general, the Court somehow sees a this case as distinct from the many times that voters in various states denied Blacks the right to vote, enacted literacy tests and other measures designed to exclude Blacks from voting, gerrymandered and converted elected offices to appointed positions to prevent non-whites from holding elected office. Despite all of this, the Court appears to cry “States’ Rights!” as if we have reverted 50 years backward.
The opinion at times seems to hint at the prevalent right wing argument that race-conscious policies themselves discriminate on the basis of race. But these policies are not racist; they exist to counter the effects of centuries o racially-based oppression. It seems the Court believes we are past the time of racism, that the best way to fight any “lingering” racism is to just pretend race doesn’t exist. In fact, as suggested by Justice Sotomayor in her dissent, the Court’s ruling “[r]eveals how little [those Justices] understand about the reality of race in America.”
But we are not past the time of racism. The reality is that oppression is prevalent in our society, and race-based oppression is institutionalized. We see the effects of racism in every aspect of life – employment, education, housing, access to health care and so on. And we see the apparatus of the State work to enforce that oppression, as the police terrorize our Black and Latino communities and imprison our Black and Latino youth at ever increasing and astounding rates. The very Supreme Court, our nine arbiters of justice, who decide whether to strike down a racist law, has only two non-white judges—seven of the nine are white.
Racism is the reality in our society. And it is this oppression that is the problem, not policies that seek to fight racial subordination.
But while we should be outraged by the Court’s decision, we should not be surprised. The ruling class benefits from the perpetuation of racism and the Supreme Court, like other parts of the capitalist state, exists to uphold the capitalist system. Racism is the ultimate tool, an effective means of dividing workers and ensuring their subordination. When workers are divided, they can be exploited regardless of race. A united working class that rejects racism and transcends racial divisions would be unbeatable.
Under capitalism, a system that operates on the oppression and exploitation for profit of the working class, all policies that break down these walls of division, however limited, must be subverted to protect the system. The poor and working class must take every opportunity to knock down these barriers. We know that it is only through socialism, which isn’t based on profit and so doesn’t require exploitation, that divisive tactics like racism, sexism and all forms of bigotry can truly be eradicated.
We must unite behind policies that fight oppression on all bases. Our so-called elected representatives will not do it for us – in fact it was the State of Michigan that sought the Supreme Court ruling upholding the ban. The courts won’t do it for us. We, the poor and working class, the true majority, must confront bigotry in any form it takes and unite to upend this system. We must build a system for the people, not one that upholds bands of oppression, but a true system for the people: socialism.