Place, Not Race

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown University, discusses her call to end race-based affirmative action in university admissions in her latest book, Place Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America (Beacon Press, 2014). She also weighs in on the Supreme Court's recent ruling on Michigan's state-wide vote that bans affirmative action in universities.


Excerpt: Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America by Sheryll Cashin




In 1954, the Supreme Court determined that segregated public education deprived “children of the minority group” of equal educational opportunity. Six decades later, public education remains largely segregated. As we celebrate or distance ourselves from the latest decennial anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, we must contend with the reality that high-quality K-12 education is not widely distributed. 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 public education usually betrays those values.


This result was not inevitable. As a post–civil rights baby, I attended integrated public schools in Alabama during the era when the state and nation were making good on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. I graduated from S. R. Butler High School in Huntsville in 1980. At the time it was one of the largest schools in the state. Our mascot was the Butler Rebel, a confederate colonel who appeared more avuncular than defiant. Butler was an integrated but majority-white powerhouse in sports and a place where a nerd like me could take Advanced Placement classes and gain entrance to great colleges. Kids from housing projects and sturdy, middle-class neighborhoods attended the same school, albeit with a degree of sorting into racially identifiable academic tracks. We played on sports fields together, attended the same “fifth quarter” dances, and generally got along.


At our thirtieth reunion, my classmates and I bemoaned Butler’s demise. Enrollment at the school we had thrived at and loved had dwindled to 35 percent of capacity, depleted by demographic change. It had become an impoverished, predominately black, low-opportunity school and the object of derision, despite its string of state basketball championships in the 2000s. Barely half of its seniors graduated, and its students were being “left behind” as families with options moved on and standardized test scores declined. Middle-class people exited the neighborhoods surrounding the school, opting for greener, higher-opportunity acres in rapidly growing suburban Madison County. The state accelerated the school’s isolation when it built an interstate highway connector that mowed down scores of homes in Butler’s attendance zone. As in most other cities where links to the interstate were laid decades before, this created a concrete firewall between the majority-white, affluent and majority-black, declining sides of town, with predictable results for our alma mater. A similar story of race and class segregation could be told in most American cities with a critical mass of people of color.


I feel blessed to have come of age in the 1970s, when there was still much opportunity to live a middle-class life. Despite being the child of broke activists who paid dearly for challenging Alabama-style apartheid, my high-quality, free public education set me on an extraordinary path. As a co-valedictorian from Butler I was able to enter Vanderbilt University on an honors scholarship and found that, despite an SAT score that was solid but not stratospheric, Butler had prepared me to compete. I chose to study engineering because Wernher von Braun had made rocket science a common occupation in Huntsville and it was an easy route to scholarships and financial security for a black girl who got As in physics and trigonometry.


Vanderbilt became my financial parent, as did the British government when I parlayed a summa degree in electrical engineering into a Marshall Scholarship to study law at Oxford University. I recall writing a letter from Oxford to my AP English teacher at Butler, Mrs. Calloway, thanking her for teaching me how to compose a coherent essay. As I endured the trauma of the British approach to finals—eight closed-book exams in eight days covering two years of material—I was steadied by the fundamentals of good writing that I learned from this gifted, passionate public school teacher. I went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and to work as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall, the chief oral advocate for Brown who had done so much to make my trajectory possible.


As my generation of post–civil rights era babies was integrating schools and preparing for life, politicians started culture wars, a war on drugs, and a cynical politics of racial resentment. And our nation retreated from the promise of Brown. Ten years ago, in marking the fiftieth anniversary of the decision, I wrote a book with the happy title The Failures of Integration arguing that the only route to true equality was the hardest one, integration. Since then racial segregation in neighborhoods has continued to decline modestly, even as the affluent have become more separated from everyone else. As a result, place—where one lives—powerfully structures opportunity. Exclusion from the good life, good schools and jobs, and middle class stability is no longer based primarily on race, as was the case in the Jim Crow era. While race certainly plays a role in the geographic sorting that goes on in residential housing markets, it is no longer a definitive marker for who is disadvantaged, because a person of color who has the means can escape admittedly racialized segregation. Meanwhile, for those of any color relegated to low-opportunity environs, geography is largely destiny.


In this book I reflect on how twenty-first century segregation contributes to the achievement gap that has made race-based affirmative action necessary. Less than one-third of black and Latino children live in middle-class neighborhoods; exposure to extensive poverty is the norm for most of them, while the opposite is true for most white and Asian children. That said, not all white and Asian children are privileged, and not all black and Latino children are poor.




The rub for proponents of affirmative action is that as long as they hold on to race as the sine qua non of diversity, they stymie possibilities for transformative change. The civil rights community, for example, expends energy on a policy that primarily benefits the most advantaged children of color, while contributing to a divisive politics that makes it difficult to create quality K-12 education for all children. I argue that the next generation of diversity strategies should encourage rather than discourage cross-racial alliances and social mobility. I contend that meaningful diversity can be achieved if institutions rethink exclusionary practices, cultivate strivers from overlooked places, and give special consideration to highly qualified applicants of all races that have had to overcome structural disadvantages like segregation. I call it “diversity practice” because we need to jettison the label affirmative action, with its loaded meanings, and create new, fairer structures of opportunity through daily effort. The goal, over time, is to create a society where getting ahead is not a function of circumstances of birth.


That august task will require a more cohesive politics, and any winning majority necessarily will be multiracial. Our present collective goal must be the same one Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. articulated at the dawn of the civil rights movement. In championing nonviolence as the means to dismantling Jim Crow, King always reminded his audience of his ultimate vision for America. “[T]he end is reconciliation; the end is redemption,” he said, and “the creation of the beloved community.” To “make it possible for men to live together as brothers in a community, and not continually live with bitterness and friction”—that was King’s end, and the unfinished work to which each generation of Americans must be dedicated.


The moral authority that flowed from John Lewis and others volunteering to get their heads beat in on the Edmund Pettus Bridge did much to render the movement “everybody’s fight”—the words Viola Liuzzo used to justify leaving her five children in Michigan to join with civil rights activists in Alabama. King saw in the Freedom Riders and his increasingly multiracial band of civil rights soldiers an early example of the beloved community he espoused. The movement itself could be an approximation of the spirit of agape love and community that he envisioned for the whole of America. One expression of this love for community was seeing the mutuality in all types of human suffering. As King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  In the end, he did not turn away from the hardest part of community building. In his last book, King wrote, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”


There are obvious lessons here for proponents of diversity. Race-based affirmative action buys some diversity for a relative few, but not serious inclusion. It doesn’t help to build a movement to attack underlying systems of inequality that are eating away at the soul of our nation. Among other transformations, we need corporations that share more profits with workers and pay them equitably. We need a financial system that doesn’t exploit average people. We need governments that invest wisely in pre–K-12 education and the nonselective higher education that at least half of high school graduates attend. We also need government that does not over-incarcerate high school dropouts of all colors.


The means of race pushes away potential allies in a way that makes it mathematically impossible to build multiracial alliances for sanity and common sense. Throughout this book, I draw on social science research to explain how race can and cannot be used effectively to build cross-racial alliances. In the context of promoting diversity on college campuses, place is a better mechanism that will also encourage alliances among those mutually excluded by current systems. Ultimately, I argue that, given our nation’s failure to live up to Brown, we have an obligation to acknowledge and ameliorate the injustices of segregation—a moral imperative more important than diversity itself. The idea of America will only become true when those who suffer mutual oppressions unite to create real opportunity for everyone.


Excerpted from Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America by Sheryll Cashin. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.


Sheryll Cashin

Comments [31]

Dan Chilton from Staten Island NYC NY

I believe that affirmative action should be based on real of very likely actual past discrimination and historically biased disadvantage.
I would suggest that a potential student write his/her essay on the circumstances of the bias and disadvantage they have been personally subject to.
One could make a case based on place, or a history or a personal story.
I believe there are hold-overs from jim-crow and slavery in some places, but no such thing from some Black African - African Americans, for example.

May. 11 2014 03:16 PM
Allan from New Brunswick

If we are thinking of this as a social mobility problem rather than educational opportunity problem, then assisting locations rather than economic class would encourage greater economic mixing (as the disadvantages of being in a lower-income area are compensated by the improved educational opportunity of the children. Having people not segregate by economic class might be more beneficial overall (through a variety of mechanisms) than sending a few underprepared kids to a better college. (I do think that economic diversity in the student population is good for _all_ of the students, particularly those from a geographic economic monoculture)

May. 08 2014 11:23 AM

"It's up to parents to demonstrate their involvement..."

Please, tell that to the single mom with 3 kids and working 2 jobs. Please do.

May. 08 2014 11:21 AM
Jay from NYC

Agree! The real issue that is emerging is economic inequality (it captures most racial inequality). Optical diversity is a great way of stating the current situation. When you have ivy league and other elite schools with 2/3 of the student body with trust funds -- you have an entrenched oligarchy who make decisions and ascend to positions based on connections rather than abilities. The society becomes stratified and innovation is lacking. APPLAUSE for Professor Cashin. Diversity and fairness follow opportunity -- opportunity for all, based on abilities.

May. 08 2014 11:20 AM
A listener

Of COURSE West Indians and Africans live a segregated existence. They segregate themselves AWAY from so-called african americans who don't share their level of commitment to education. And properly so.

May. 08 2014 11:15 AM
Jesiah from Upstate NY

We must consider race because it was considered BEFORE. That is people of color are in the position to be considered for affirmative action. Why is this such an issue for people to understand? Simply cloaking affirmative action as a CLASS is not going to fix anything.

May. 08 2014 11:15 AM
CC from NY

I'm glad we're talking about reforms to affirmative action.
I this white woman who grew up in a very abusive home, she's queer, she's poor, she's white (blond and blue eyed to boot). She relayed to me stories of non-white people assuming she had a awesome life and spoke to her of her 'privildge' as a white person...though she's not come from priviledge at all.
We can't assume things about people based on skin color. It's just another form of hate and discriminiation.

May. 08 2014 11:15 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I like the tweet from "Grandma's Favorite" on reaching poor children in rent-stabilized apts. in gentrified neighborhoods. Good question! It's not as simple as what zip code you live in.

May. 08 2014 11:14 AM
The Truth from Becky

@JOYCE - are you trying to tell me that the Constitution was written with minorities in mind?

Those that would oppose Affirmative Action are the reason it exists.

May. 08 2014 11:14 AM
Steven from Bklyn

If you want fairness, do selection entirely by lottery.

May. 08 2014 11:14 AM

How about basing school funding on income tax and equally distributing it per student instead of property tax?

May. 08 2014 11:11 AM
Stop making excuses

Let's stop making excuses for low income black and hispanic parents. When you go to high achieving suburban schools, you find a tremendously high level of parental involvement. In low achieving black and hispanic schools, you have the exact opposite.

It's up to parents to demonstrate their involvement with and concern for their own kids. To quote Bill Cosby

Also, this woman sounds very much in love with the sound of her own voice.

May. 08 2014 11:11 AM
Mei-Yu from Queens

you typed all of that and ended up saying nothing at all.

May. 08 2014 11:08 AM

Professor Cashin is very courageous.

May. 08 2014 11:08 AM
blacksocialist from BKbaby

mei yu - this, "is it really that hard to understand how a small number of self selected so called minorities (nigerians, etc.) could do well academically relative to the "natives"?", is a direct answer to your question...... maybe you don't understand/accept what it means because you have other answers in mind...... pathetic

May. 08 2014 11:06 AM
Jesiah from Upstate NY

I'm sorry Cashin, but the IRONY here is that those who are able and willing to take the honors classes are those who have the resources and parents to PUSH them to take the extracurricular, honor and accelerated classes. Those kids are mostly WHITE, because...newsflash...children of color are already behind in those areas due to historical factors that keep them behind; be it economical and social oppression. Its much more than "class" its or being in the top 10% of your class.

May. 08 2014 11:03 AM

Senator ELIZABETH WARREN .............

Nobody typifies the SCAM that affirmative action has become than this dishonest OLD WHITE woman who lied and posed as a “minority” and got her positions at Penn and Harvard as a minority hire. She might be 1/32 Native American because (as she says in her book) she “thinks “ that she has some ancestry based on family history lore. Nobody actually checks !!!

And you wonder why non-advantaged people resent this !!!???

May. 08 2014 11:02 AM

Is this about Race, or is it really about Class? This guest, and her children, benefit from Class differences, not race. Race we can see in others' faces, but Class is hard to see. I imagine that poor minorities are groaning right now... if they had time to listen to such a privileged radio show.

May. 08 2014 11:02 AM
Mei-Yu from Queens

blacksocialist, you bring nothing to your argument other than attack. Not very convincing.

May. 08 2014 11:01 AM
blacksocialist from BKbaby

mei-yu - youre as clueless as joyce. is it really that hard to understand how a small number of self selected so called minorities (nigerians, etc.) could do well academically relative to the "natives"? ... and your view of the scar of affirmative action is equally foolish. just pathetic

May. 08 2014 10:59 AM
blacksocialist from BKbaby

joyce - thanks for the idiocy, i can always count on you (as well as marty, john from office, jgarbuz). you people are sad and pathetic.... and i love when you people bring up the self selected so called minorities (the few nigerians, the "asians", etc. that fight to get to this country) to buttress your foolishness..... so sad, so pathetic

May. 08 2014 10:54 AM
Mei-Yu from Queens

Seems to me this hurts the minority person who actually worked hard to get ahead, since they will be forever viewed (at least initially) as an affirmative action case.

I would also like to understand why certain sub groups in the black community, like recent African and Caribbean immigrants do so much better than their American born counterparts (not much different than any other group) despite the fact they are the same color.

I hope at some point we can get over this whole thing, it looks like the next younger generations already have (well at least until we indoctrinate them all to these fights of ours and older generations.)

May. 08 2014 10:28 AM
Joyce from NYC

With apologies for a long post, but I continue to feel that nobody gets this right.

The Constitution is clear: No discrimination by race.

There then is a claim that blacks fall behind due to racism by the white racist society, and we have to violate the Constitution to make up for this.

But this is demonstrably false: black Nigerians and black Caribbeans do better (education, income, etc.) than do WHITES. Are we to think that American whites can’t notice that Nigerians are black?

And, we have endless evidence of the failure of so-called affirmative action: A mediocre student in a mediocre college thrives. A mediocre student in an elite college fails and drops out. Of course we can lower college standards—have them major in black studies or sociology which as been degraded. But what happens when they major in computer science, physics, chemistry? Nobody want to talk about that. Or, we could dumb down those disciplines as well.

(Look at the proposals to degrade New York’s elite high schools—or are we even allowed to use the term “elite?”)

So, what is going on here? How about much of American black culture leads to lack of success.

If so (or does your guest claim that it is not culture, it is genetics?), then what to do?


How? Try reading “The Triple Package?” Brian, have you had the authors of this book on? Did I miss it? If not, why not?

But of course we are not allowed to talk about CHANGING CULTURE.

So, what could be done (without violating the constitution).

How about the following:

a.) Colleges keep their standards.

b.) Private and volunteer groups offer free tutoring for anyone who wants it. Choose to locate such efforts in certain locations to assure that certain groups have an opportunity to take advantage of them. (Those from other locations could bus in if they wish to.)

Well, so there is a thought. But not only will it never be considered, I bet it won’t even be mentioned on the show.

May. 08 2014 10:22 AM

Instead of dividing poor and working people by continent of origin I'd rather help all struggling people

May. 08 2014 10:11 AM
Romel Fernandez from Rahway NJ

Race-based affirmative action is simply a way to divide people. In 1996 I entered Rutgers through an affirmative action program along with dozens of teens of every color. This included white teens as well. The program was great in the sense that it tried to prepare us for college work.
The program was repulsive in the way that it promoted this overly simplistic propaganda which blamed all of minorities problems on "the white man" and racism.
It took years for me to replace that propaganda with beliefs that represent my experiences with race and politics. I now firmly believe that the idea of race based affirmative action exists as a way to divide the American public. If we all hate each other on basis of race, then it becomes impossible to unite on the basis of our common interests. That is in the interest of the powers that be.

May. 08 2014 10:07 AM
Linda from Riverdale NY

Professor Cashin's position is admirable, naive and will likely cause much damage. As a black American, I do agree that income levels very much determine your fate in America and believe that as a country we do not focus on providing opportunity in white, underpriviledged places like Appalacia the way we should. Having said that, if you are Black in America it does not matter how much money you have, you will always be discriminated against. In my family's case, we are middle class living in a diverse but largely white area, our son is 8 years old, the bias in school is already starting.

May. 08 2014 09:46 AM
Jake S from Harlem

Joe - he's a troll, and has no interest in discussion, as evidenced by his posting of his screeds hours before the show even airs. Don't waste your time.

May. 08 2014 09:45 AM
Joe from Badlands

Oh lovely, this canard from our favorite contributor:

"the usual labels from the tolerant left."

Sir, before the spot even went on air, you just labeled and derisively characterized a whole swath of imaginary people right there ... and "as usual."

So much for dialogue. Just take your toys and go home.

May. 08 2014 08:46 AM

That "White Male Privilege" article is ironic because he leverages his Jewish minority status by playing the holocaust card! Too funny!

May. 08 2014 08:01 AM

“Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege” – TIME MAGAZINE

(Much discussed recent article by a brave (crazy?) Princeton student - and grandson of Holocaust survivors. Needless to say he has received much hate mail and the usual labels from the tolerant left.)

“Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color. My appearance certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. ”

May. 08 2014 07:17 AM

“The good thing for the diversity kingpins about the “diversity” problem is that you can obsess over it forever with NO RISK of solving it, because it is insoluble—based as it is on a false premise (skin color or ethnicity).
They aim for group representation in all academic fields based on a group’s numbers in the student population, and in America and in (eventually) the world at large.”

“The War on Truth”

May. 08 2014 07:08 AM

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