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Beyond Affirmative Action, Toward Black Unity

Above Photo: Political cartoon “New Freedom for the Negro” in the wake of the new Woodrow Wilson administration. New-York tribune. New York (N.Y.), 14 November 1914.

The recent Supreme Court decision which banned the use of race as a criterion for college admissions is indeed racist.

The decision also obscures the need for Black unity and for a new Black politics which explicitly calls for liberation.

If the roof of your home caved in during a thunderstorm and your landlord offered to sell you a patch to cover a quarter of the hole drenching you, your family, and all your Earthly possession for a high-interest loan of $100,000 that you had to repay under penalty of incarceration, you would tell them to go where the sun don’t shine. But lucky you, your landlord is a ‘benevolent’ one and recognizes that you’re in this position partially because of an unjust system that they benefit from and discrimination against your people (past and present). Landlord loans you a hammer, nails, and a tarp to help you out for the time being. The downpour does not stop and will not stop, but you now have the tools to make it slightly better, as long as not too much else goes wrong. You would ask your neighbors for help, but they are in the same situation, and some don’t even have tools, so you consider yourself fortunate, maybe even better than them. Meanwhile, your landlord’s home is not only safe and dry, but their neighborhood association actually managed to divert all the torrential downpour to your side of town, while they collect interest on your debt and complain because they could’ve given the tools to their kids to use to build a play fort or go camping in their backyards.

This is a sloppy and, at best incredibly modest, analogy to affirmative action programs for Black Latinx, and Native peoples.

“Affirmative action” is, at this point, a loaded phrase. Strictly speaking, affirmative action typically refers to sets of policies/procedures that attempt to “even the playing field,” most commonly in education or employment decisions, by stopping present and future discrimination against marginalized or underrepresented groups while making up for past discrimination and injustices. For some in the U.S., affirmative action that considers race is representative of ‘reverse racism’ and political ‘wokeness’ run amok, and for others, it is a major victory that our elders and ancestors struggled for for years. Let’s put aside the fact that the actual “merit” of racialized students has nothing to do with the white supremacist opposition against affirmative action. Let’s also not even consider that the greatest beneficiaries of U.S. affirmative action programming have been white women and, if you are looking at minority-owned business programming in places like New York City, Asian men. And finally, we won’t even engage with the fact that the history of this country is a history of affirmative action for white Christian men: the Homestead Act of 1862 and its land grants; the New Deal with its various discriminations based on occupation and residence; the GI Bill combined with private sector discrimination in education, employment, and mortgage lending. Just to name a few.

I also hope to leave no doubt that this is not a defense of affirmative action in the U.S. Nonetheless, I recognize that the moment we are in requires us to be precise in how we criticize the semi-liberal half-measures that the U.S. political establishment (i.e. “ruling elite”) enacted during the “Civil Rights Era,” while also acknowledging that some similar tactics are necessary as part of a more holistic vision of reparations and liberation for Africans, and all peoples, in the Americas. Still, as Black radicals concerned with building a truly liberated and just society, the attacks on affirmative action by white supremacists and their puppets can present a tricky dilemma: on the one hand, the assault on affirmative action in higher education is a continuation of a devastating white supremacist judicial and extralegal attack on Black and all marginalized people in the U.S. that sparks a sense of urgency for a defense of our humanity; one the other, it provides an opportunity to highlight the contradiction that affirmative action in this country has always been more focused on incorporating a few racialized and colonized folks into the empire than it has been with our freedom and self-determination. This is now even more evident with the one exception in the recent Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action that allows for affirmative action in military academies . Imperialism still needs all the soldiers it can get.

From the beginning, when affirmative action-type programs and policies first arose in the 1940s, Presidents, both Democrat and Republican, have only been concerned with making African/Black people in the U.S. better servants of capitalism and empire. FDR and JKF’s early ‘affirmative action’ policies were focused on requiring a semblance of non-discrimination in government contracting and hiring, and President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded affirmative action through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, it was Nixon that recognized the potential for social control that the concept held – particularly for limiting Black social mobilization and resistance that he and the so-called ‘silent majority’ were so desperate to destroy.

As Mehrsa Baradaran notes in a 2017 piece titled “A Bad Check for Black America”, Richard Nixon was among the strongest proponents of affirmative action, especially in the business world:

Focusing on “black capitalism” allowed Nixon to neutralize black resistance while also undermining the demand for reparations and diminishing the social safety net….Like most things that sound too good to be true, black capitalism is a mirage. It does not work, either to reduce inequality or to increase prosperity.

While there are differences between affirmative action policies in higher education and business, in our economy and socio-political reality, incorporation into the neoliberal university more often than not sets Black and other racialized students down a path for incorporation into at least the lower rungs of participation, management, and/or investment within the machine of profit- and war-making that is the United States. This is doubly so when those students and graduates are saddled with massive amounts of debt in order to get that education – the debt itself is another conservative tactic to demobilize student movements. As opposed to previously, when Black/African people primarily considered ourselves separate (if at times, unfortunately, subservient) from “white America,” now every piece of patriotic “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) propaganda tells us that we, too, can be part of the white supremacist, settler colonial project. Even the term “African-American” is a subtle tactic to suggest that we should see ourselves as part of this machine, this empire.

Despite the possibly honorable intentions of our forebears, at the end of the day, affirmative action as implemented was designed primarily to give a few Black and other racialized people access to the spoils of U.S. empire. In higher education, these policies have functioned to expand and consolidate a buffer class of “African-American” and “Latinx” managers and capitalists to separate them from “the rest” — the masses — and in turn ensure a more palatable version of exploitation and wealth-building for the few. This, along with many other factors like limited housing integration, has both physically and psychologically separated the buffer class from the majority of Black and other racialized peoples, killing cross-class solidarity in our communities and in our discourse.

As Black people in the US who care about ALL Black/African people in this country and beyond, this latest Supreme Court ruling can be the chance to recognize and unify against the ‘bad check’ that Nixon, Johnson, and our past and present Black misleadership class have given us. The likes of  Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama, Eric Adams, Andre Dickens, Robert Johnson, and many others have not been concerned with seeing the majority of Black people have real self-determination and control over our lives, especially not poor and working class Black folks. These (mis)leaders and capitalist charlatans want to protect their own careers, investment accounts, and ambitions, while willingly serving as representatives of the racialized “buffer classes” with enough access and opportunities to partake in the spoils of U.S. empire at home and abroad. The objective is to make the rest of us fully invested in the project.

So yes, this country is witnessing a boldly accelerating wave of fascist rhetorical, legal, financial, and physical assaults – including this and last summer’s court rulings. I ask only that we heed the words of the late Toni Morrison and not let the very real racism that feeds the rightwing distract us from the true, long-term struggles for justice, liberation, and self-determination of our people and all peoples. SCOTUS attacks on piecemeal and already-battered civil rights protections (e.g., reproductive rights , non-discrimination against same-sex and queer couplest , voting rights ) are just the latest stage in a class war against Black/African people and ALL marginalized, working class and poor people, by both the Republican and Democratic parties.

The sooner that we recognize that no political or entrepreneurial hero is coming to save us, the sooner we refuse to participate in the U.S.’s ongoing project of white supremacist capitalist domination, and the sooner we stop accepting bad checks from charlatans who use their identity or affected cultural cues to hide their crooked motives, then the sooner we can unify against this death-dealing machine of U.S. and European empire and exploitation. If we have urgency for anything, it should be for this.

Austin Cole is a graduate student in City Planning and Business Administration, and the Political Action Co-Chair of the Black Graduate Student Association at MIT. He is a member of the Black Alliance for Peace, and organizes with Black Lives Matter Boston and the MIT Graduate Student Union-UE.

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