Commentary: The Supreme Court wants us to forget history. Only the truth can help us move forward

A sign says "opportunity for all" outside the Supreme Court building.
A few days before the Fourth of July, the Supreme Court struck twin blows to equality in education — and to the history we try to teach.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)
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A few days shy of the Fourth of July, six Supreme Court justices dealt heavy blows to the independence of millions of poor and underrepresented Americans. With twin 6-3 rulings against race-conscious college admissions and student loan debt relief, the justices sent a loud and clear message that two systemic problems, racism and debt, do not exist. The first decision, deeming the affirmative-action practices of Harvard and the University of North Carolina unlawful, reflects a central paradox of progress in the United States: A nation founded on the premise of race must use race to mitigate systemic racism.

The comments of justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor illustrate opposing forces creating this tension. “This is not 1958 or 1968,” Thomas said during an oral concurrence, a rare break from his usual courtroom silence. “Today’s youth do not shoulder moral debts of their ancestors.” Sotomayor disagreed in her dissent: “Entrenched racial inequality remains a reality today. … What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality.”

A bloc of six right-wing justices has gone against 50 years of precedent and the Constitution itself. The harm to students of color will be swift.

June 29, 2023

As if imposing more obstacles for people of color in college admissions were not enough, the Supreme Court then struck the death knell for the Biden-Harris administration’s student loan debt relief program.


This time, the remarks of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan reflected the opposing positions. Roberts scolded the executive branch, demanding “that Congress speak clearly before a Department Secretary can unilaterally alter large sections of the American economy.” Kagan in turn scolded the judiciary: “The result here is that the Court substitutes itself for Congress and the Executive Branch in making national policy about student-loan forgiveness.”

President Biden immediately resolved to use a different avenue to advance debt relief that would drastically improve the lives of some 40 million Americans.

What does all of this add up to? On the one hand, only time will tell. What is certain is that the Supreme Court has re-introduced profound uncertainty for socio-economically and racially disadvantaged families on the cusp of a very important, very difficult decision: whether or not to attend college at all. Without the promise of student loan relief, poor and even middle-class families will have an even tougher time reconciling the benefits of attending college with the long-term debt it begets. It is a dilemma I know all too well.

The news of the decisions immediately sent me back to summer 1999. Like many young adults, I couldn’t afford to make the college decision lightly. I knew it was a tall financial order my family could not meet without assistance, along with a wing and a prayer. I used all the grants and loans available to ease the burden. I spent the summer before attending Columbia University picking up shifts as a cashier at Pathmark, my local supermarket.

Despite my best efforts, I arrived at Columbia’s upper Manhattan campus that fall owing the university around $5,000. When my parent’s attempts at securing additional loan support failed because of impossible credit score thresholds, I found innovative ways to put off the outstanding balance. Each subsequent school year, the balance would await me, accruing interest and at times even blocking my ability to register for classes.

Professor Marcus Anthony Hunter, who was UCLA’s first chair of African American studies, on why the College Board’s deletions are devastating.

Feb. 3, 2023

After I graduated, that balance followed me into my first years as a high-school English teacher. Managing and eliminating this debt is difficult and demoralizing, often leading many to punish themselves for deciding to attend college and persuading others to skip higher education altogether. This is why upending a federal program that aims to eliminate $20,000 for eligible loans not only devastates many borrowers but also stifles the next generation — cutting off a path to advancement before the question of affirmative action even presents itself.


Unfortunately, beneficiaries of the New Deal and civil rights laws, including Roberts and Thomas, have determined that future generations do not deserve or need the benefits they’ve been afforded. And there’s no reason to believe they’re done. These consequential decisions signal that the current Supreme Court majority is prepared to block a number of private, public, local and federal programs to ameliorate systemic racism and debt.

In response, some have pointed to the court’s potential design flaws — a nine-member, largely homogeneous body without term limits making consequential decisions about an ever-more diverse population of 336 million people. Others have declared these actions the outcome of an influential decades-long right-wing agenda to roll back rights of every kind. While all of this may be true, something more profound is clear: This court’s reading of where we are today is ahistorical.

A nation without an official history is vulnerable to interpretations that upend meaningful attempts to repair and transform systemic inequality. Without an official national record of atrocities, of the enslavement at the root of systemic racism and poverty, programs designed to redress any kind of inequality through education will not withstand attacks — or the test of time.

Jean Pfaelzer discusses recasting history in ‘California, a Slave State,’ which tracks the record of racism and forced labor that drove the state’s ‘startup’ culture.

June 28, 2023

What we need is a federal truth commission, something like the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission proposed in 2021 by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland). The commission would prevent continued denials of American history by establishing a publicly available ledger documenting and memorializing the harms permitted and authorized by the federal government. Similar commissions that followed the Holocaust and apartheid drew together historical evidence, testimony and scholarship, creating an indisputable record of governmental accountability in Germany and South Africa, respectively.

Although Justice Thomas argues that youth should not be subject to the moral failings of past generations, the pressing and continuing gap in achievement by race and socio-economic status proves the plain fact that systemic inequality impedes the pursuit of happiness. It is a moral failing we all bear, a problem we all must fix. But first we must all acknowledge it — and continue to do so.

Rather than simply feeling defeated by these decisions, let them also serve as a potent reminder that the collective work to achieve equity is still before us. May we all be reinvigorated to unite to compel elected officials to remedy systemic racism and inequity. Equality of both outcome and opportunity requires equity in every realm, and that’s the truth to which we should all be reconciled.


Hunter is a professor of sociology and the inaugural chair of African American studies at UCLA, the coiner of #BlackLivesMatter and the author of four books.