As national organizing director for Faith in Action and founder of the Black Southern Women’s Collaborative, I wake up each day committed to developing strategies to improve the material condition of Black people. That is why the United States Supreme Court decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina is so concerning. It will reverse decades of gains and adversely impact the very people who have systematically been disadvantaged by race – Black communities.
Let’s be clear, the decision – all but gutting affirmative action – was based on the false notion of meritocracy, which is synonymous with anti-Blackness and white supremacy. This false belief asserts merit alone leads to success. It discounts the tangible ways that historical and present-day racism bars Black people from full agency and equal opportunity. It creates a myth that academic inferiority, rather than systemic barriers, accounts for differences in obtaining professional success. This belief lets anti-Black academics and officials off the hook and blocks all communities from moving forward.
It should go without saying that Black people are no less qualified or competent than their counterparts. In the United States, given the legacy of slavery, Black people are routinely and systematically denied advancement. At a time when the courts refuse to see race, when disingenuous movements block discussions of race at the workplace and in schools, and when Black communities face a wholesale regression of basic rights, this decision will have a ripple effect.
Additionally, the racist notion that Black people are unqualified promulgates a lie that Black people receive an unfair advantage in admission, as though we have not earned the right to have these opportunities. It casts suspicion upon every Black person who dares to soar. What is more, every Black woman I know has faced significant barriers and still commits herself to upward mobility and community uplift. This is part of a long pattern for Black women and Black people in general, especially considering that enslaved Africans provided the foundation upon which this nation rests. The most cherished rights we celebrate today were wrought on the backs of Black people decades ago.
This decision is a manifestation of the Supreme Court defending its own class interests versus that of the greater country. If this were an isolated issue, we would be outraged, but this is part of a pattern of the court and those in power to center their interests above all else. And honestly, this ruling aligns more with an oligarchy than a democracy. It stubbornly rests at the intersection of race and class, leading to broader questions about the true availability of opportunity for all.
It is imperative we take actionable steps to rectify these decisions; this is the only way to further justice and ensure that the nation moves forward, not backward. To do this, we must strengthen, fortify and increase historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). With the implosion of affirmative action, it is paramount for the survival of not just Black people but this country that HBCUs exist.
We need to increase the educational visibility and viability of HBCUs, which have always welcomed Black students and graduated Black professionals. But HBCUs need funding – both what is owed to them and financial investments that will set them up for a brighter future.
According to a 2021 McKinsey article, HBCUs are twice as likely to promote Black economic mobility as predominantly white institutions. UNCF notes that 25% of Black STEM students graduated from HBCUs, and the same McKinsey article reported that 50% of Black lawyers, 40% of Black engineers and 80% of Black judges graduated from HBCUs. A 2017 study also found that despite accounting for 3% of the nation’s colleges, HBCUs accounted for 17% of Black medical school applications. We need to build more spaces that take into consideration the advancement of Black academics, intellectualism and thought. If we lift the boat of Black folks, then boats of all other people will also be lifted.
Second, we need to have an honest reckoning with politics occurring in the Biden administration. The Biden administration needs to create a serious plan for how to build democracy that is truly representative of the people. For example, we need to encourage Biden to expand the number of Supreme Court justices. Between 1790 and 2023, the U.S. population grew from 4 million people to 335 million people. But the number of Supreme Court justices only grew from six to nine. Nine individuals who inadequately represent the diversity of American citizens should not have enough power to erratically alter legislation like they have with the reversal of affirmative action.
Third, we need to take organizing more seriously and bolster investments in it as well as organizations such as the Black Southern Women’s Collaborative that are deeply committed to organizing as a practice. We need to build blocks of power that can adequately represent our interests and that have the manpower to hold politicians accountable from the local level to the federal level. We need to have deeper talks with everyday folks to enlighten them on how voting decisions can change the most minute yet impactful aspects of their decision of life.
If we want to bend the arc of justice in this country forward, we need to reject every anti-Black policy the Supreme Court or any other court advances, understanding that uplifting Black people is uplifting all people. We must challenge the American government to do better by the people whom it represents. This is the only way that will gain a better future for Black young people, just like our civil rights ancestors tried to do for us.
Phyllis Hill is the founder of the Black Southern Women’s Collaborative and the national organizing director for Faith in Action.
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