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The Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action is ugly and frustrating – but no surprise

Affirmative action in colleges was meant to acknowledge and try to address this history of stubborn racist animosity to Black education

Noah Berlatsky
Thursday 29 June 2023 22:22 BST
Biden says 'discrimination still exists' in America after Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action

In a 6-3 party line decision, the extreme conservative Supreme Court decided that affirmative action in higher education is illegal. Schools are no longer allowed to consider the reality of racial discrimination and disadvantage as one factor in admissions — a decision which will almost certainly reduce the number of Black students on college campuses.

The Court’s decision is frustrating and ugly. But it is not surprising. On the contrary, it is perfectly in line with the United States’ long and ongoing racist tradition of working to deny education to Black people.

Education is a path to advancement. Educated people have a better chance of entering the professions, of accruing more wealth, of becoming self-sufficient and of advocating for themselves. Many white people, though, have not wanted Black people to advance, and certainly have not wanted them to advocate for themselves. Black education is a threat to white supremacy. People who support white supremacy, therefore, have long fought Black education.

Slavers before the Civil War were determined to restrict Black education. States like Virginia and South Carolina passed laws making it illegal to teach enslaved people to read or write; punishments included fines and corporal punishment. Frederick Douglass writes that nothing made his enslaver “more angry than to see me with a newspaper,” and recounts trading bread to white boys in return for reading instruction. “It is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country,” he concludes.

White opposition to Black education continued after the Civil War. Black communities set up schools quickly, and Black children and adults alike were desperate to learn. But support from the government was sporadic, and trailed off after the end of Reconstruction. States spent three times as much on white students as on Black students — disparities enabled by the fact that most Black students were forced into inferior, segregated schools.

Black people faced other restrictions as well. Richard Wright wrote about how racist laws prevented him from applying for a library card in Memphis during the late 1920s. He had to withdraw books surreptitiously using the card of a white man who was willing to help him.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v Board of Education was supposed to end segregation in schooling and open the way for equality of education. It prompted “massive resistance” from Southern white communities and white politicians. Some states passed laws withdrawing state funds from integrated schools. Prince Edward County, VA, simply closed its public school system altogether for five years.

The popular public myth is that federal government pressure eventually forced southern whites to relent, and schools were integrated. However, the truth is a good deal less cheerful. Resistance to integrating schools never stopped, in the south or the north.

School busing programs, intended to integrate schools, were quite successful and raised both Black and white student achievement in places like Charlotte, North Carolina. But backlash was intense and violent. There were white riots in Boston. Powerful northern white politicians like then Senator Joe Biden fought against busing, as southern white politicians had fought against desegregation.

Ultimately busing for integration was abandoned. Indeed, integration as a goal was largely set aside. School debates now focus on raising test scores, the roles of teachers’ unions, and charter schools. You will rarely hear city, state, or national leaders call for efforts to integrate schools. Instead, as Noliwe Rooks chronicles in Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education, white parents moved to suburbs, or to charter schools and magnet schools, draining resources and attention from neighborhood schools. Scholars refer to this as “opportunity hoarding.”

As a result, schools remain poorly integrated, even though the US population is growing more diverse. According to a recent report, more than a third of students attend a same-race or same-ethnicity school. Nearly seven in 10 Black students attend schools where a majority of children are Black or students of color. Black students also are segregated in less affluent neighborhoods; seven in 10 attend high poverty schools, in contrast to only one in three white students.

And since schools are funded in large party by poverty taxes, this means that Black students disproportionately attend schools with fewer resources. High poverty schools spend as much as 15.6% less per student than other schools. Inevitably, Black student achievement remains lower than that of white students.

Affirmative action in colleges was meant to acknowledge and try to address this history of stubborn racist animosity to Black education. For hundreds of years, Black children have been prevented from learning, pushed into inferior schools, denied educational resources and denied opportunities. Bright, motivated students who are Black are less likely to have access to honors courses, to test prep, to multiple school activities. A Black student and a white student with the same level of achievement are not equal; the Black student has overcome historical and ongoing discrimination and disadvantage.

Racism has put up barriers to Black students getting a higher education at selective institutions. Affirmative action attempts to undo some of that racism. As Justice Sotomayor said in her dissent to the majority Supreme Court ruling, “Ignoring race will not equalise a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality.”

Historically, though, and still today, many people — and especially many white people — do not want equality. White Americans have fought for hundreds of years to enshrine a two-tier educational system, with white people on the top and Black people on the bottom. The heirs of those who fought to prevent Frederick Douglass from reading the newspaper have a lot to cheer about today.

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