August 1, 2023

A ‘NO’ vote for Affirmative Action is a ‘YES’ vote for Mass Incarceration

In a social climate where quality education is already grossly underfunded and inaccessible, losing affirmative action is a blow that system-impacted communities cannot afford.

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court voted to invalidate affirmative action. A devastating decision for the future of educational equity in the United States, the verdict effectively outlaws the consideration of race in college and university admissions processes nationwide. 

The announcement of this decision triggered an eruption of outrage from students of color, their families and non-POC allies. In the weeks following the decision, news media highlighted the wide scale opposition, people took to the streets to protest, and at dinner tables across the country, families discussed the ruling’s likely impact on students of color and their futures.

Absent in much of the recent coverage related to affirmative action, however, has been the impact of the ruling on system-impacted communities. But the uncomfortable truth is that this decision will bolster mass incarceration and specifically harm incarcerated people of color. 

Deliberately pushed to the margins of society and often overlooked in conversations about postsecondary education, system-impacted communities of color will be invisible victims of the collapse of increased opportunities for postsecondary education, one of the few American avenues for upward mobility, safety and financial security.

Education has only ever been a right if you’re white

For a national education system already in disarray, this ruling was perhaps the cherry on top. At the end of the persistent failure of the US education system and a slew of impenetrable barriers to access quality education, incarceration sits waiting, perhaps as a foregone conclusion for many youth of color from poor communities. 

Across the country, high student to teacher ratios, a lack of educational resources, in-school police presence, and overworked and underpaid teachers constitute just another day for many students of color—intentionally pushed further from success and closer to prison, where existing social and economic disparities are further exacerbated, and where Black and brown people are over-represented.

Ending affirmative action is yet another vote in favor of mass incarceration for communities of color

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, DeAnne Hoskins of JustLeadershipUSA—an organization dedicated to uplifting system-impacted individuals—emphasized that “...the path to higher education is one that has proven to keep more of our young people from becoming ensnared in the criminal legal system in this country in the first place.” 

In 15 states in the country, at least $27,000 is spent per prisoner rather than per student. The government’s persistent educational divestment in communities of color education paralleled with its continued investment into carceral infrastructure undoubtedly aims to suppress people of color in the United States, fracturing communities and preventing the accumulation of wealth needed for growth.

Losing affirmative action hinders rehabilitation and fuels recidivism 

Ending affirmative action in education will bolster the already raging school to prison pipeline, but it will likewise continue to suppress folks’ efforts to achieve stability post incarceration. Burdened by the weight of the broken institutions that drive many to incarceration in the first place, finding access to support post release is often deeply challenging. Life after prison is littered with barriers that intentionally exclude formerly incarcerated people and prevent folks from getting back on their feet.  

Affirmative action was a vestige of the Civil Rights Movement working overtime to ensure a fraction of diversity in this country’s overwhelmingly white elite educational institutions. Access to a college education, though clearly not the “great equalizer” envisioned by early pioneers in public education, is an undeniably significant tool for many incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people of color to break away from the lived realities of systemic racism, escape recidivism and create thriving economic, social, and familial lives.   

As we adjust to the harsh reality of increasingly inaccessible postsecondary education in the wake of the Supreme Court's latest decision, we must remember that this ruling will have lasting consequences across the nation for people of color, those living in poverty, and especially—if less visibly—those living behind bars.