May 12, 2014

Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America

Affirmative Action, Sheryll Cashin

by Sheryll Cashin, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center. This essay is adapted from parts of Cashin’s book Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America. Professor Cashin will also participating in a panel discussion, “Race and the law in 2014: Still Separate and Unequal?” at the ACS 2014 National Convention.

Despite the Supreme Court’s compromise decision in Fisher v. Texas, affirmative action is on life support. In Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the Supreme Court upheld the ability of Michigan voters to ban race-based affirmative action. Conservative opponents will continue to attack the policy in politics and the courts. There will always be another Abigail Fisher. One important response to the demise of race-based affirmative action should be to incorporate the experience of segregation into diversity strategies. I argue that use of place, rather than race, in diversity programming will better redress the separate and unequal schooling that most black and Latino children endure, while enhancing the possibility that we might one day move past the racial resentment that affirmative action engenders.

While I propose substituting place for race in university admissions, I am not suggesting that American society has become post-racial. My proposal accounts for the racial architecture of opportunity in this country through the race-neutral means of place. Ultimately, I conclude that the social costs of racial preferences outweigh any marginal benefits when race-neutral alternatives are available that will create racial diversity by expanding opportunity to those most disadvantaged by structural barriers. The truly disadvantaged—black and brown children trapped in high-poverty environs—are not getting the quality of schooling they need, partially because backlash wedge politics undermines any possibility for common sense public policies. Affirmative action as currently practiced in admissions at most elite institutions does little to help this group and may make matters worse by contributing to political gridlock borne of racial cleavage.

In an American metropolis stratified into areas of low, medium, and high opportunity, place is a disadvantage for anyone who cannot afford to buy or rent a home in a low poverty neighborhood. A recent study found that only 42 percent of American families now live in middle-class neighborhoods, down from 65 percent in 1970. This is due to the rising segregation of the affluent and the poor from everyone else. Income segregation has grown fastest among black and Hispanic families and high-income families of all races are now much less likely to have middle- or low-income neighbors. Segregation of the highly educated has increased even faster than that of the affluent. Highly educated people are drawn to metro centers where other people like themselves live, and within the metropolis they gravitate to neighborhoods of their own kind—creating bastions of privilege that college recruiters flock to.

Meanwhile political constraints born of a perception gap between whites and nonwhites about the need for government interventions to redress racial inequality are likely to harden with rising demographic diversity. White anxiety will continue to rise as more and more whites experience a loss of majority status. If whites are to engage with diversity rather than resent it, the rules of competition must be perceived as fair to them and everyone else. Hence, I prefer admissions strategies that will render centers of learning more racially and economically diverse while encouraging rather than discouraging cross-racial alliances.

Recent research on disadvantage-based affirmative action that considered a complex range of factors beyond parental income, including parental education, language, neighborhood, and high school demographics, found that such programs would raise African American and Latino enrollment nearly as much as race-based affirmative action and also increase economic diversity. An institution truly committed to diversity and universal access to opportunity would offer financial aid solely based upon demonstrated financial need. It would make the SAT and ACT optional or not use them at all, as is increasingly the case at hundreds of colleges. It would not give special consideration to race, ethnicity, or legacy status. Instead, in addition to the standard application form, all applicants would be invited to submit an optional statement on what disadvantages they have had to overcome. All forms of disadvantage would be considered, but structural disadvantages like living in a high-poverty neighborhood, attending a high-poverty school, or low household wealth would be given considerable weight.

Proponents of affirmative action or diversity should take the long view. Creating a racially diverse politics in which working class whites and people of color share a common agenda will have a more transformative impact than affirmative action programs, which currently tinker at the margins of opportunity often on behalf of those who least need help. Unless and until we recognize the mutual oppression of economically marginalized people of all races and undertake the labor-intensive work of building political alliances among them, the American Dream will remain just that—a dream that mocks the 46 million Americans who live the nightmare of poverty and the millions more who struggle to become or stay middle class.