The Supreme Court May Radically Reshape Colleges This Year
This year, the Supreme Court may radically change the face of college, both who can attend and the financial burdens it comes with. The Court is considering several key lawsuits — against student debt relief and race-conscious admissions — which are funded by dark money groups and ruled on by right-wing judges. In addition, these suits are ideologically driven by anti-Black racism. They are legally, morally, and practically indefensible. And yet, these lawsuits are merely new pages in the same story this nation has written about race and education.
In an exchange with lawyers working to knock down race-based affirmative action, newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson posed a hypothetical: Suppose an applicant whose family has lived in North Carolina since before the Civil War says they want to honor their family legacy by going to the University of North Carolina, becoming the fifth generation to graduate from the institution. She continued, “[A] second applicant says, ‘I’m from North Carolina, my family has been in this area for generations, since before the Civil War, but they were slaves and never had a chance to attend this venerable institution. As an African American, I now have that opportunity…I want to honor my family legacy by going to this school.’”
Under a ruling that bars race-conscious admissions, these two applicants would have drastically different opportunities to tell their family stories and to have them count. What Justice Jackson exposes in this scenario — other than what she questions may be a likely “violation” of the Equal Protection Clause should this rule be nixed — is that each of our stories is inherently bound up in a convoluted history of race.
In another looming decision, the Supreme Court is set to rule on broad-scale student debt relief — President Biden’s signature executive policy that could zero out the student loan accounts of 20 million Americans, the beneficiaries of which are disproportionately Black.
The historical trend is clear: Denying education to Black Americans has long been a means of establishing a racial hierarchy. Like many institutions, UNC and Harvard — the two universities in the race-based admissions cases — built their campuses with the forced labor of enslaved people, and would of course deny their descendants admission generations after. In 1831, Nat Turner’s slave revolt prompted states to pass laws banning the teaching of reading and writing to enslaved people, suggesting that literacy — particularly the reading of abolitionist texts — was one of the largest political threats to the institution of slavery. Margaret Douglass, a former Virginia slaveholder, was arrested, jailed, and deemed a “dangerous white woman” when she was caught teaching free Black children to read. (While Douglass held strong to her racist beliefs, her incarceration reveals the extent to which educating Black people was forbidden.) After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Virginia’s Prince Edward County completely shut down its entire public school system rather than obey a court order to racially integrate. Known as the 1959 Southern Stalemate, Black children were left at home without education for more than half a decade while white parents enrolled their children in private schools that were funded by state grants.
For the last half-century, segregation in education walked in through back doors rather than the front. In colleges, it came through tuition as a means of cleaving education away from the working class. To deter the swell of political protest on California campuses in the 1960s, which saw increasing numbers of Black enrollees, then-governor Ronald Reagan ditched a largely free university system and concocted what we now know as “tuition fees.” Rather than diversify higher education with the rich knowledge and experiences of people from a variety of backgrounds, including Black and brown students, Reagan stamped college with a price tag. His education adviser later warned that expanding admissions would create an “educated proletariat,” and Reagan himself said soon after his proposal that increased costs would make students “think twice how much they want to pay to carry a picket sign.” Of course, that price tag has since climbed to nearly $2 trillion in total student loans, dragging down our entire economy and crushing Black women the hardest.
In K-12, American schools had arrived at a new system of segregation from within by sorting mostly white students down the hall into “gifted,” “honors,” and “magnet” programs in a process known as “racial tracking.” This “desegregation without integration,” writes Integration Interrupted author Karolyn Tyson, kept educational apartheid alive. More recently, the College Board — the college readiness organization that runs programs like the SAT — stripped basic frameworks from its Advanced Placement African American course. The decision was announced after governor Ron DeSantis threatened to ban the course, though the Board insists it made these changes independent of outside influence.
Our history and present tell a deeply tragic story about the consistency with which white America has used education as a political wedge to undermine racial justice, even at the expense of education itself. But this history is more than a series of unfortunate events. It’s a map of moral conviction, power, and those who wield it. Today, the conservative-controlled Supreme Court is wielding its power for wickedness. It’s no surprise the vast majority of Americans currently disapprove of the way the Court is doing its job, especially after destructive rulings like undermining the government’s power to tackle climate change, gutting the Voting Rights Act, and ending the right to an abortion.
The upcoming education lawsuits should be open-and-shut cases. Recently, the merits of the GOP-led lawsuit against student debt relief were severely undermined, to say nothing of their claim to legal standing. “None of the plaintiffs put forward plausible evidence of concrete and particular harms that [student debt] cancellation will cause them and that undoing cancellation will prevent,” Luke Herrine, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, tells Teen Vogue. Osamudia James, a UNC School of Law professor, says race “continue[s] to exert influence on life outcomes in ways that matter in the college admissions process” and that “diversity has been one of the few and limited ways the Supreme Court has permitted institutions to consider the ongoing legacy of race and racial hierarchy in the United States.”
It may seem like common sense that, yes, the government can cancel federally held debt because, well, they own it. Or that, yes, given our history, universities considering race in admissions is quite necessary for racial equality. But the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to be governed by common sense or restrained by legal precedent. Decades of corporate-funded right-wing efforts aimed at taking over the judiciary have succeeded in rendering this branch of government a servant of a racist, reactionary, conservative agenda.
So what would it look like for the current executive branch to carry out equal yet opposite actions based on a political and moral authority rooted in racial justice, not racial animosity? In the face of a rogue judiciary, what clear-eyed, radical, or unprecedented acts of justice could President Biden execute that declare a refusal to pathologize white supremacy? Whatever the answers may be, they are urgently necessary.
The current Supreme Court is undemocratic, illegitimate, and corrupted — and, should the conservative justices have their way, we’re headed toward a society where the history Black students learn comes with a lifetime sentence of student debt, and the revisionist history that white students learn accelerates this country’s authoritarian tilt. That world is not an option. Debt sentences must be abolished, not codified. Racial diversity must be expanded, not upended. Black Americans — all Americans — need a nation where learning and Blackness are both free and freeing. As a current graduate student at UNC and a Black North Carolinian whose roots are in the state, Justice Jackson’s hypothetical wasn’t hypothetical for me at all. For many Black folks, it’s exactly our reality. We are so much closer to 2050 than 1950. We need leaders who will act like it.
Braxton Brewington is a community organizer and spokesperson for the Debt Collective.
Co-published with Teen Vogue.