Place, Not Race

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Huntsville, AL, the city Sheryll Cashin grew up in, and writes about in her new book "Place Not Race"

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.