By Greg Godels
July 23, 2023
As the US Supreme Court aspires to drive a nail into the coffin of affirmative action, it is important to recognize how the Cold War helped to shape the mid-twentieth-century civil rights people’s victories and the consequent policy of Affirmative Action in education.
Some may find that connecting the conflict between the US and the USSR to the formal establishment of African American citizen rights is far-fetched.
But the facts speak otherwise.
The US ruling class crudely portrayed the Cold War as a contest between those defending freedom and equality versus those imposing tyranny and enslavement. The US launched multiple cultural offensives to reinforce these views, sending books, movies, and diverse artistic figures and athletes throughout the world to signal its commitment to those lofty values.
But as the great postwar wave of decolonization swept the world and the US appeared too often on the side of the colonists, the moral high ground seemed impossible to maintain in the eyes of the critical non-aligned nations.
Even more devastating was the ugly face of racial segregation that existed de jure in the Southern, formerly Confederate states, and de facto in the rest of the US, with its accompanying violent enforcement. To the non-white majority of the world, this inhuman practice negated any proclaimed commitment to freedom or equality.
To meet this Cold War crisis, the US ruling class chose an approach that was both least costly to capital and its minions and most burdensome on the working people. Rather than returning to the unfinished business of post-Civil War Reconstruction, rather than attacking segregated housing patterns (disrupting profits in the finance, insurance, and real estate sector), rather than pressing fair employment (impacting corporate and business profits), rather than guaranteeing voting rights and fair representation (disrupting the political status quo), the US ruling class placed the burden of desegregation on those who were among the most vulnerable in US society: children. It was public schools and not neighborhoods, housing, public accommodations, businesses, government agencies, or corporations that would bear the brunt of desegregation.
With the Supreme Court decision– Brown versus Board of Education— US elites offered a “victory” against segregation to place before world public opinion. Because it was a court decision made by lifetime appointees, it had little negative impact on elected officials or the fate of their political parties.
Of course, the court decision was only symbolic unless backed up with enforcement. It is likely that Brown versus Board of Education would have remained symbolic and another gesture of self-righteousness in the cultural Cold War since officials took little interest in forcing it on the bastions of racial segregation.
But Brown versus Board of Education did elevate racism to a place in the public debate. Also, it energized a growing resistance to segregation, adding a new generation of fighters to the struggle and legitimizing the fight. Without the growth and militancy of the peoples’ struggle, any promise offered by the Supreme Court decision would have faded, however.
For the most part, officialdom and the Civil Rights movement operated on parallel tracks, with Federal policies focused on school desegregation in the South and the movement tackling voting rights and desegregating public spaces. Elites largely sought to confine and retard the struggle for racial justice.
Nonetheless, the movement for racial justice forced a series of civil rights acts in the mid-1960s that addressed the harshest aspects of Southern segregation, supporting voting rights and the use of public accommodations, as well as denying workplace and housing discrimination in the US.
With the murder of the most influential anti-racist leaders, the suppression of urban risings, and the political backlash of Southern reactionaries, the US ruling class called a halt to the school desegregation project. The landmark Millikin versus Bradley Supreme Court decision of 1974 settled the limits of public education desegregation at the border of wealthier suburbs. Desegregation was meant only for poor and working-class schools, and not for the schools of the elite. For US elites– Cold War optics be damned– the costs of racial justice would not be borne by wealth and power. No bus would transport urban Blacks to the rolling hills of suburbia; nor would any children of the petty-bourgeois find seats awaiting in city public schools.
Class critically intersected race at that juncture, a reality that continues to shape the contours of anti-racism going forward.
Of course, despite this setback, the struggle against racism continued, but as affirmative action– a project to go beyond formal, level-playing field equality and place material support behind the economic mobility necessary for substantial equality. Behind affirmative action was the understanding that racial justice was an active process and not a static state of affairs, i.e. nominal equality. In other words, those disadvantaged by racism needed substantial advantages to continue their journey to equality.
Ideally, the impact of affirmative action would be race-neutral. African Americans could gain “advantages” without disadvantaging anyone else: jobs could be created in workplaces where they were underrepresented without denying jobs to any non-Black worker; mentorships and job-training could be made available to all; subsidized new or existing housing could be established; health care could be universal, etc. To use the term popular with pundits, affirmative action could be “win-win.”
When the win-win logic is true of society at large, it is the basis for socialism.
But that is not the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is relentless competition: what the same pundits call “zero-sum.” Someone must win, someone must lose. When someone applies to the best public school, there is room for one more. When someone applies to a private school, some win, some lose.
Consequently, the logic of capitalist society produces smug winners and disgruntled losers. And affirmative action that advantaged African Americans produced many who were or felt they were disadvantaged. Under capitalism, social progress is always the class struggle over who will sacrifice, who will pay.
Nevertheless, well-intentioned, anti-racist liberals pressed affirmative action on US capitalism with some success. Gertrude Ezorsky, a leading theorist of affirmative action, notes that “A dramatic increase in black employment and promotion occurred at specific companies that adopted affirmative action plans. These companies include AT&T, IBM, Levi-Strauss, and Sears Roebuck,” (Racism And Justice, the Case for Affirmative Action) She also noted that by ”…1982, 20,000 black officers had been added to police forces around the nation.” This squares with the ruling class’s determination to make police and military action against the colored peoples not look like white on Black or white on non-white violence.
Ironically, one of the greatest successes of the affirmative action era was Richard Nixon’s Justice Department-initiated Philadelphia plan to integrate the building trades. Blacks in the Philadelphia building trades went from one per cent of all workers to twelve per cent by 1982.
But as Ezorsky concedes, affirmative action declined drastically in the 1980s: “After 1980 there was a dramatic decline in the enforcement of AA [affirmative action] through the federal compliance program. The effectiveness of AA also declined as a result of Supreme Court decisions during the 1980s.”
With the courts, politicians, and the media fleeing affirmative action remedies that would address material class inequality, liberals and social democrats shaped anti-racism into “glass-ceiling” anti-racism. That is, the battle for racial justice became merely an effort to absorb more African Americans into the petty-bourgeoisie and into elite circles.
Token or role-model representation is sold as an incentive for working class and poor Blacks. This pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap version of anti-racism reached its zenith with the elevation of Barack Obama into the highest seat of political power. The celebration of Obama, and the relatively robust growth of a Black petty-bourgeoisie, left the inner-city impoverished, powerless, and nourished only by symbolic victories.
The gap between white and Black income and wealth remains relatively the same as half-century ago– worse for most, better for some. Educational inequities, segregated housing, poor infrastructure, and marginal employment remain the fate of many, if not most African Americans. Urban ghettoization– once a basis for a measure of racial solidarity– has been shattered, not by emancipation, but by colonization: the brute force of gentrification.
For the “new” anti-racism– with its rejection of the class dimension– language, gestures, symbols, and manners are the target of self-satisfied justice warriors and not material deprivation or class exploitation. Where a leader like Martin Luther King found the continuation of the Black struggle in the fight of Memphis garbage workers seeking better pay, today’s NGO-sponsored “organizers” look to call out verbal clumsiness, historical anachronisms, and “microaggressions.” They look to create “safe spaces” where diversity can be smugly celebrated. They can locate the roots of racism in the twisted minds of white racists, but not in a socio-economic system that benefited, and continues to benefit, from the competition that racism generated and from the super-profits that flowed from a racial division of labor.
Accordingly, the “new” anti-racists are less attentive to the macroaggressions of inferior health care, low-paying jobs, substandard housing, and still segregated, poor education. Since exploitation, poverty, and despair have come into existence, privileged reformers have blamed the victims for the evils that exploitation, poverty, and despair spawn. It is no different with today’s liberals who organize marches, seminars, and rallies decrying the violence and drug use plaguing our poorest communities, while overlooking the meager material conditions that are the fertile soil of social self-destruction.
When commentators announce the death of affirmative action, citing the recent decision, Students for Fair Admissions versus Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, they are profoundly mistaken. Affirmative action has been dead for a long time, eviscerated, ignored, evaded, and demonized since the 1980s.
Racial preference is deemed necessary at elite, ruling-class training academies like the Ivies because their admissions policies are so riddled with legacy, athletic, donor, and faculty admissions. As guardians of ruling-class liberalism and custodians of ruling-class mythology, these largely private institutions hide the unjustifiable privilege shown to those without merit behind a cynical veneer of racial and ethnic sensitivity, hoping that it will mask class privilege. The Supreme Court decision was not a blow to long-abused affirmative action, but to a cynical system of elite privilege; it was a reminder of its hypocrisy.
Affirmative action in higher education– offering, affirming, and sustaining opportunities for Black students– is easily achievable today in community colleges, colleges, and public universities by simply eliminating the huge student-loan debt that burdens those without means now and going forward. The thousands of public institutions of higher learning are eager to accept students.
Free admissions– a realistic demand for a peoples’ movement– would be a long step toward restoring the promise of authentic affirmative action.
Rather than indulging the current class-blind anti-racist fashion of policing speech, humor, body language, books, and statues, an authentic anti-racism can seek to remove the material roadblocks to equality, as King and his predecessors sought. Of course, there is a cost to equality, a cost to real, and not fanciful, formal opportunity. And that burden should be borne by those who have benefited from racism: the rich and powerful.