This is the first of a series of articles that we intend to publish on the topic of affirmative action. In this first article, we will be laying the groundwork for an analysis of affirmative action. Here, we specifically deal with its origins and relationship to the management of the capitalist state i.e., the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
On June 29, the Supreme Court made a decision with a 6-2 vote to limit affirmative action in colleges and universities. Surprisingly, affirmative action is still in place for military academies. Of course, a tool of reaction needs to consistently serve the needs of capital. So, what is affirmative action? It’s a group of policies and programs in the US that go beyond just treating everyone equally. They aim to help minorities and women have better opportunities in the job market and education. These policies try to make sure that more job and student positions go to minorities and women. The topic of affirmative action is a “hot-button” in the US, and debate is dominated by the positions of the two main political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. The “progressive” and Democratic sides tend to support affirmative action, while the Republicans are against it.
The progressive trends can be limited and misleading. From unclear positions, often without a material analysis of reality, they try to present themselves as the unquestionable representative of the desires of oppressed peoples using “advanced” ideas. They claim to be the only opposition to the reactionary views of society. In some cases, where their ideas may be valid, they do not always rely on a scientific analysis to understand the root of the problems they are fighting against.
In contrast, the dialectical approach of Marxism-Leninism not only allows us to understand the conception of reality, it also offers revolutionary solutions to the everyday issues in society by going beyond the simple and rigid ideas presented by the bourgeoisie. Take affirmative action policies, for example. If we analyze them mechanically, we might just pick one side, either for or against. But by doing that, we miss investigating why the need for such policies arises. We need to uncover the root of the problem and focus our efforts there to find a real solution.
Some “communists” tend to get caught up in the framework dominated by the Democratic party and its “progressive” appendages. An example of this was seen in the case of Regents of University of California v. Bakke in 1978, which questioned the legality of affirmative action in higher education. The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) and other forces from the New Communist Movement opposed the court’s decision. The CPUSA supported affirmative action as part of its strategy to fight for democratic rights and “genuine” equality for Black people, and Left-Center unity. Such illusions were justified under the threat that the “ultra-Right” and fascist forces presented to democracy.
However, this approach overestimated bourgeois democracy and lost sight of its class nature. A “democratic front” with the forces of capitalist management was incorrectly considered indispensable for the victory of the working class on the path to socialism. The CPUSA underestimated the role of Democrats and “progressives” in maintaining an exploitative system, where its current management takes place within bourgeois democracy, from where these reactionary forces arise. The CPUSA saw affirmative action as a crucial tool in breaking discrimination patterns, but it failed to fully recognize how the bourgeoisie, through these political forces, co-opts popular movements and channels their demands into measures that still serve capitalist interests. While communists must fight against all manifestations of racism and strive for improvements in the working class’s conditions, it’s essential to understand that the bourgeoisie often grants reforms with one hand but takes them back with the other. The abolition of discrimination and racism cannot take place on the terrain of capitalism since it is responsible for the conditions which allow such issues to persist. The class struggle cannot be subordinated for a democratic struggle.
As communists, our aims and activities are not restricted to winning reforms. However, each victory can be used to fuel the struggle for overthrowing the capitalist system. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: Does affirmative action truly improve the conditions of the working class?
A simple “no” answer to this question fails to fully address the complexity of the situation and cut through the muck of discourse dominated by the political parties of the bourgeoisie. Many civil rights organizations, backed by powerful monopolies, still advocate for these measures. However, statistical studies and polls on public support for affirmative action have yielded diverse results, partly because the samples used are often small and not representative of the whole population, especially the working-class. A small change in the factors being studied can lead to significantly different outcomes. So, we need to dig deeper to understand the reasons behind the push for affirmative action.
We start by taking a look at the history of affirmative action that can be traced since the 1960s when US presidents issued Executive Orders. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson’s contributions to affirmative action are often referenced, but not much is said about the role of the Nixon administration. Nixon became president after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, dealing with school desegregation and a prolonged economic recession in the USA. The world capitalist system was engulfed by an acute monetary crisis between 1960 and 1970, which led Nixon to devalue the dollar twice in 1971 and 1973.
During Nixon’s time as president, attempts were made to curb the recession from 1969 to 1970 which was marked by rising inflation and unemployment that hit Black workers disproportionately. This period saw the rise of the New Left and New Communist movements following the Civil Rights movement, growing discontent, imperialist aggression, and economic crisis. The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) was not poised to take advantage of this situation as it was recovering from the damage caused by the McCarthy Era and the Smith Act trials. It had taken steps towards its re-emergence by participating in the Civil Rights Movement and running a communist candidate, Charlene Mitchell, in the 1968 elections.
However, there was a split within the CPUSA due to disagreements over the defense of the USSR after Khrushchev’s criticisms of Stalin. Pro-Khrushchev John Gates, the editor of The Daily Worker, resigned leading to a major split. Nixon’s administration was also focused on repressing the CPUSA, leading its members to often hide their party membership, especially while being actively involved in mass movements.
After the Civil Rights Movement achieved some victories for democratic rights, the gap between middle and upper-class Black people and working-class Black people widened. Naturally, these rights did not extend to workers and did little to improve the miserable conditions of Black workers. The pressure from the economic situation damaged the stake of the more privileged classes in the economic and political structure. Nixon wanted to keep unity among the bourgeoisie and with the Black middle class, which was becoming critical of capitalism.
To manage the capitalist crisis and its contradictions, Nixon needed to control the rising dissatisfaction among the public and get rid of the “costly” War on Poverty programs that were introduced under Lyndon B. Johnson and were seen by Nixon as responsible for the problems faced by Black people. To do this, he introduced “Black capitalism” as a tool. The means by which to set this tool in motion were established: the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, Section 8(a) of the Small Business Act, Minority Bank Deposit Program, and affirmative action, which was initiated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEOC) and the Philadelphia Plan. These programs relied on the monopolies and the banks.
Many people who were part of the radical mass movements accepted these concessions and gave up on the idea of revolution. This helped break up the unity in the interracial alliance called the Rainbow Coalition, as the false promise of “Black capitalism” divided their support. Its ideological repercussions were also an element in the rift between the major leaders of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.
The enduring legacy of Nixon’s policies has emanated through every presidential administration with each one adopting its own form of “Black capitalism”. Affirmative action, despite all the legal challenges and its bans in nine states, has remained an exceptional leverage for presidents to manipulate voters while consistently expanding “Black capitalism”. It is used as a means by which to divert attention away from the bolstering of an exploitative system and divide the working class on issues of race.
In our society, when ethnic and racial groups get into prestigious universities through affirmative action, they often end up in roles that manage capitalism, especially in positions that seek to give it a more human face. These roles can be found in both the governments of the two major political parties, their newspapers, and their “think-tanks.” While affirmative action policies may differ in higher education and business, at the level of higher education, they often lead to the inclusion of those who benefit from these policies into different levels of participation, management, and investment within the capitalist system.
One of the outcomes of implementing affirmative action has granted the most privileged members of ethnic and racial minorities access to the benefits of US capitalist-imperialism. In higher education, these policies have allowed the upper and middle classes of these groups to contribute to the perpetuation of exploitation and wealth accumulation for the privileged few.
To put this into perspective, consider an organ of the Democratic Party, the Advance Publications Inc. owned New Yorker. Since 2004, the New Yorker has endorsed every Democratic presidential candidate. The main contributors are represented by various ethnicities and races who have all attended or are professors at prestigious universities. One of them served as a staff assistant in the Obama administration. The case is similar with the team at New York Times. Even when considering one of the mouthpieces of the Republicans, like the New York Post, we find individuals whose studies have taken place, if not at the top universities, then at least at the R1 categorized universities which are nearly as prestigious according to the Carnegie classifications. If someone does not go to a prestigious university, their education, especially their class background, paves a way for a position in a think-tank or on the staff or board of the capitalist media. With one of the main organs of the social democratic and “progressive” trends, the Jacobin, we find individuals from various racial and ethnic backgrounds with education from or teaching at prestigious universities. In addition, we find an influence of contributors with association to programs that are functional to social democracy and to opportunistic parties. Of note, is the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a vehicle of inoculation for a center of opportunism: the Party of the European Left.
Let’s take a brief look at one of the main “progressive” think-tanks, Demos, a proponent of affirmative action. Not surprisingly Demos is funded by some of the largest monopolies and capitalist families such as Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. Board of Trustees members include prominent figures from the philanthropy industry, managers of Democratic Party campaigns and governance at the state and federal levels, and those who are from racial backgrounds can lay claim to an education from a prestigious university. The staff of Demos are of a similar ilk.
Have the various mechanisms of the capitalist system and degrees from prestigious universities actually helped the working class? It appears that the capitalists have benefited more from the growth of an extensive network of philanthropic organizations. They enjoy tax exemptions, pretending to be saviors, gas-lighting people in the face of their inhumane system that keeps millions of people in poverty. It’s a cycle where they first impoverish, then pose as heroes, and then profit from it.
Does this mean that communists should drop advocating for affirmative action? What about the data on the expansion of access to higher education for racial and ethnic minorities? These are the questions that will be addressed in the next article on affirmative action.
1. The Bakke Case: A Weapon Against Democracy. Central Committee, CPUSA. Political Affairs. February 1978.
2. Contributors. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/contributors
3. Supreme Court’s Rejection of Affirmative Action Widens the Divide: Dēmos Calls for Renewed Efforts to Combat Systemic Racism. Press Release. Taifa Smith Butler. June 29, 2023. https://www.demos.org/press-release/supreme-courts-rejection-affirmative-action-widens-divide-demos-calls-renewed-efforts
4. Fiscal Year 2019 Demos Donors. https://www.demos.org/annual-report/2019/donors
5. Demos Staff. https://www.demos.org/about/staff