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"Place, Not Race: Affirmative Action and the Geography of Opportunity,"

by Sheryll Cashin May/June 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

Professor Sheryll Cashin’s provocative new book, Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America, published this month by Beacon Press, could not have been more timely, coming so soon after the related Supreme Court decisions in Fisher v. Texas and Schuette v.Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. The question of how to appropriately – and constitutionally – consider race in university admissions has been an evolving discussion in the civil rights community ever since Justice Powell’s landmark decision in Bakke in 1978. For this issue, we asked Professor Cashin to provide an overview of her thesis, and we invited two other prominent civil rights theorists (Olatunde Johnson and Girardeau Spann) to provide their responses and critiques of Professor Cashin’s position. – the editors

The discourse in America about segregation is dishonest. On the surface, we pretend that the values of Brown v. Board of Education have been met, although most of us know in our hearts that the current system of public education betrays those values. Residual, de facto segregation and the stratified architecture of opportunity in our nation contribute to the achievement gap that has made race-based affirmative action necessary. 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 affirmative action. [But see Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, excerpted on p. 7 of this issue of P&R] Conservative opponents will continue to attack the policy in courts and through politics. There will always be another Abigail Fisher. Eight states have banned affirmative action programs, six through ballot measures (California (1996), Washington (1998), Michigan (2006), Nebraska (2008), Arizona (2010), and Oklahoma (2012)); one by executive order (Florida (1999); and another by legislative act (New Hampshire (2011).

One important response to the demise of race-based affirmative action should be to incorporate the experience of segregation into diversity strategies. A college applicant who has thrived despite exposure to poverty at his school or neighborhood deserves special consideration. Those blessed to come of age in poverty-free havens do not. I argue that use of place, rather than race, in diversity programming will better approximate the structural disadvantages many children of color actually endure, while enhancing the possibility that we might one day move past the racial resentment affirmative action engenders.

While I propose substituting place for race in university admissions, I am not suggesting that American society has become post-racial. In fact, much social science research supports the continued salience of race, especially in the subconscious of most Americans. 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.

I would not make place the only dimension for consideration of affirmative action, but I do think that, given how large it looms in structuring educational opportunity and outcomes, it should be given much greater weight and attention than it currently receives in diversity programs. I would also give considerable weight to another factor that disproportionately affects blacks and Latinos: low family wealth. Finally, I call on universities to radically reform admissions processes and jettison concepts of “merit” that are unrelated to their professed missions.

Segregation & Inequality

In the largest metropolitan areas, most black people can be found living in environs where they predominate. Latinos also tend to live in neighborhoods with a large presence of people of color and very few white neighbors. Asians are the most integrated of so-called minorities; the largest share of their neighbors on average is non-Hispanic white. Thus whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians tend to experience diversity very differently in their daily lives.

This differential experience of place greatly affects opportunity. Exposure to extensive poverty is the norm for most blacks and Latinos, while the opposite is true for most whites and Asians. Less than one-third of black and Latino children live in middle-class neighborhoods where middle-class norms predominate. Meanwhile, more than 60% of white and Asian households live in neighborhoods where the majority of people are not poor. As demographer John Logan succinctly put it, “It is especially true for African Americans and Hispanics that their neighborhoods are often served by the worst performing schools, suffer the highest crime rates, and have the least valuable housing stock in the metropolis.”

Whether intentional or de facto, racial and economic segregation beget racial inequality, which in turn implicates the debate about whether and how to maintain affirmative action. Those privileged to live in high-opportunity neighborhoods rise easily with the benefits of exceptional schools and social networks. While the opportunity structure is highly racialized, the same forces that create geographic disadvantage for many blacks and Latinos also disadvantage average white folk. 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% of American families now live in middle-class neighborhoods, down from 65% 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.

Proponents of affirmative action should worry about neighborhood inequality. A large body of social science research suggests that where one lives can directly affect one’s social, economic or physical outcomes. This is especially true of low-income children’s school performance. Among the proffered explanations for the impact of neighborhood and school poverty are less experienced teachers, greater teacher turnover, fewer resources that tend to attach to high-poverty schools (which in turn need increased resources to compensate for concentrations of poverty), fewer middle-class classmates, reduced parental and community resources, and an oppositional culture that tends to denigrate learning.

According to a study published in the Sociology of Education, selective colleges enroll 9.2% of children of black immigrant families, compared to only 2.4% of native black high-school graduates. Possible explanations for why immigrant blacks are disproportionately competitive in university admissions include that they tend to live in less segregated neighborhoods, experience less violence and disorder as they come of age, possess an immigrant identity that renders them much less susceptible to peer influences, and often have better-educated parents than do their African- American peers. As long as segregation exists, inequality of inputs will exist, with attendant unequal outcomes. This begs the question of how and whether affirmative action should compensate for these structural disadvantages.

The Demise of Race-based Affirmative Action

Race-based affirmative action had been declining in university admissions even before Abigail Fisher’s case arrived at the Court. Since Ward Connerly kick-started a state-by-state political mobilization against affirmative action in the mid-1990s, the percentage of public four-year colleges that consider racial or ethnic status in admissions has fallen from about 60% to 35%. Only 45% of private colleges still explicitly consider race; elite schools are more likely to do so, although they, too, have retreated. The Court’s holdings in Fisher and Schuette are likely to depress these numbers even further.

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. Institutions necessarily are changing to accommodate both emerging racial complexity and globalization. Latino enrollment in U.S. colleges grew by a whopping 24% between 2009 and 2010, an increase of 349,000 students. In the same one-year period, enrollment by blacks and Asians also grew while non-Hispanic white enrollment fell by 320,000. 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.

An Alternative: Place-Based Affirmative Action

Ironically for proponents of affirmative action, who seem most worried about how African-American youth will continue to be represented on college campuses without consideration of race in admissions, native black strivers might fare better under programs based upon economic or structural disadvantage. A well-designed, place-based diversity program might better approximate the actual obstacles many black children face on the path to college. I would give special significance to place and other radical reforms that remove unnecessary exclusion from admissions practices.

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. Among ten universities that adopted race-neutral plans, seven met or exceeded the levels of black and Latino student representation they had previously achieved using racial preferences. If we are honest about the extant data on the effects of moving from race-based to place-based methods of affirmative action, the debate is really about how and whether African Americans will retain a meaningful presence at the most selective colleges and universities. UC Berkeley and UCLA, California’s most elite public higher education institutions, currently meet or exceed the numbers of Latino students they had before Proposition 209, but they have yet to recover fully in terms of black student representation.

Let’s face it: Fewer African Americans may enter elite institutions under an affirmative action system based upon structural disadvantage than under race-based affirmative action. This raises the question of whether the marginal benefits of getting more blacks into elite institutions—hypothetically, an 8% black class using race vs. a 4% black class using other criteria—are worth the political costs of continued racial division. I think not, especially when the harms that flow from a racially divided electorate include mass incarceration and underinvestment in both public education and the social safety net. In any event, if I am correct in my prediction that law or politics will eventually render race-based affirmative action extinct, it would make sense to get started on race-neutral reforms that have the potential to create real diversity and more social cohesion.

I prefer strategies that will render centers of learning more racially and economically diverse while encouraging rather than discouraging cross-racial alliances. Notably, the Texas Ten Percent Plan emerged from a cross-racial coalition of black, Hispanic and rural white members of the Texas legislature who represented districts that were not sending large numbers of students to UT institutions. The Texas and Florida plans that send the top 10 and 20% of high-school graduates, respectively, to state universities are imperfect alternatives that rely on racial segregation to achieve racial diversity by ostensibly race-neutral means. They are a rare first step among diversity policies toward accounting for residential segregation and its attendant disadvantages, albeit indirectly and incompletely. California has also adopted a similar place-based program that guarantees admission to the UC system to the top 9% of graduates of each local high school. The UC system has also eliminated legacy preferences, as have some universities like Texas A&M and the University of Georgia.

If an institution is sincere about achieving diversity and wishes to or is forced to do so without considering race, then place is an important, underutilized and fair tool. An admissions process that affords holistic, individualized review of a variety of factors should give extra weight to living in a low-opportunity neighborhood (e.g., a poverty rate above 20%) or attending a high-poverty school. This would benefit those who most need and deserve affirmative action. It would also have the salutary benefit of encouraging racial and socioeconomic integration in low-opportunity neighborhoods. A strategic middle-class family might decide to stay in or move into a historically low-opportunity neighborhood to receive the benefit of this plus factor in college admissions.

Low family wealth should also receive considerable weight as another factor disproportionately affecting blacks and Latinos. Exposure to concentrated poverty and low family wealth are both “structural” forms of disadvantage because their racial dimensions can be traced to conscious, racist policy choices that endured for decades.

While single-parent status is another factor that disproportionately affects African-American youth, the degree of government culpability is less clear (and frankly beyond my realm of expertise). In any event, diversity programs can capture single-parent status and other forms of disadvantage by allowing individual applicants to state what obstacles they have overcome. On the order of magnitude currently given to race in race-based affirmative action programs, the structural disadvantages of segregation and low wealth should be given far more consideration and weight.

This proposal might not help middle-class black kids living in medium- or high-opportunity environs, especially those aiming to enter elite institutions. But affirmative action should be reserved for students of any color who are challenged by serious disadvantages. For those who are not, I have confidence they can compete, and I think it is healthy to send a message that most global aspirants have already absorbed: Rewards come to those who work exceedingly hard. In our bewilderingly diverse future, no one is entitled.

Racial Reconciliation and Radical Reform Poor and working-class students of all colors face structural constraints to upward mobility. Even working-class whites who have the test scores and grades to gain entrance to college are not attending commensurate with their numbers, because the current system of college admissions and financial aid works against low-income people in insidious ways. A cottage industry of tutors, test preparers, consultants, learning centers and other resources that only the affluent can tap has sprung up around college admissions and the elementary and secondary training that precedes it. Performance on the SAT is tightly correlated with family income. It has no correlation whatsoever to university mission statements, unless a college is willing to rewrite its mission to say: “Our purpose is to preserve advantages of wealth and income in America.” Using cumulative high-school GPA to evaluate college applicants is a more legitimate measure of merit because it is a better predictor of likely performance throughout college, and it has less adverse impact on disadvantaged and underrepresented minority students. Yet selective colleges slavishly accept exclusionary criteria propagated by the College Board and U.S. News and World Report as merit. “Merit-based” financial aid, as opposed to “need-based” financial aid, also works against entry by working-class students.

In addition to using place in any diversity calculus, several other reforms may be necessary to revive social mobility and the social contract in the United States. Universities should rethink ill-defined, exclusionary concepts of “merit.” In my field of legal education, for example, the ability to publish theoretical articles in elite law journals is more valued among select law faculties than the ability to teach students how to practice law in the real world.

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 receive extra 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 reach —or to stay in— a shrinking middle class.

Sheryll Cashin is Professor of Law at Georgetown University. Following graduation from Harvard Law School, she clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and DC Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Abner Mikva, and worked as an advisor on urban and economic policy in the Clinton White House.

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