The Dream Revisited

Keeping the American Federal State Active: The Imperative of ‘Race-Sensitive’ Policy

by Desmond King | July 2014

In her passionate dissent in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014), Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor defended the need for a continuing American federal State role in affirmative action. Justice Sotomayor argued for the continuing need for ‘race sensitive’ measures, specifically in university admissions, but in principle in other spheres of society too. They are appropriate because of America’s history of denying equal political rights to African Americans and other racial minorities, because of the endurance of deep material racial inequalities and, Justice Sotomayor added, because race matters so much in daily experiences – “race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up.”

“Race sensitive” measures – often described as ‘race conscious’ or ‘race targeted’ policies – are widely unpopular with most white voters but receive support from at least 60-70  per cent of African American and Latino voters. Rogers Smith and I argue that two racial policy alliances dominate approaches to addressing enduring material racial inequalities – advocates of so-called ‘color-blind’ policies and their adversaries who advance ‘race conscious’ measures. These two positions overlap with modern America’s historically exceptional partisan polarization - Republicans aligning with color-blind arguments and Democrats with race conscious positions. This alignment between preferences for policies dealing with racial inequality and partisan polarization is unusual historically (since both parties had pro- and anti-civil rights reformers from the 1880s until the 1980s) and makes the challenge of devising public policy intensely difficult. The majority of justices on the Supreme Court – Republican appointees – have made clear their hostility to affirmative action policies, leaving the minority of justices – Democrat president nominees – constantly embattled when defending measures or policies designed to promote racial equality. Thus where Sotomayor reinforces the urgency of ‘race sensitive’ policies in the federal government’s initiatives to try to get on top of enduring material racial inequality, the Court’s Chief Justice John Roberts reiterates in the same judgment the color-blind stance he first articulated in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007): ‘the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” The color-blind and race conscious policy alliances are engaged – to the minimal extent there is engagement – in a dialogue of the deaf. 

In this setting, Sheryll Cashin’s provocative book, Place Not Race, makes a valuable and welcome contribution to the debate on what affirmative action policies should look like in the current political era. Cashin advances a richly defined basis for modern affirmative action policies linking her proposal – that the criteria for such measures as university admission schemes should be based on residential area – to the sources of enduring racial inequality increasingly recognized by social scientists, in this case the bundle of restrictive traits labelled as ‘neighborhood effects’ by such scholars as Patrick Sharkey and Robert Sampson, and featured in the work of scholars of entrenched residential segregation, like Camille Charles, and its class consequences, like Mary Pattillo.  Cashin gives the Texas Ten Percent admissions scheme as an example. She argues for a scheme which will focus on low-opportunity neighborhoods (defined as more than 20 per cent living there in poverty), independent of a household’s race. Such a scheme might win Court endorsement since the color-blind majority can interpret it as a class rather than race based stance.

But such color-blind schemes for affirmative action are in danger of offering too limited an approach to material racial inequality for several reasons. First, they neglect the searing entrenched character of racial segregation in residential and educational patterns in the US. Nothing short of a national program combining  targeted community development high-investment measures combined with a national  program of  coercive affirmative action quotas will begin to reduce this embedded infrastructure of inequality. The significant desegregation of schools since the late 1960s and decline in hyper-segregated residential patterns can’t mask the persistence of segregation: for example, those school districts released from court ordered integration mandates since the 1990s have demonstrated a remarkable tendency to re-segregate without provoking any objection from the Supreme Court majority in its consideration of related cases.  While the statistics on housing desegregation point to a desegregation trend, we still have a long way to go. Ironically the University of Texas Ten Percent scheme could only exist because residential and education segregation is so deep. 

Second, as Justice Sotomayor’s dissent implies racial discrimination and prejudice – though greatly reduced – remain salient in modern America. This can be measured for instance in the revealed preferences of Americans by race or ethnicity about what sort of neighborhoods they wish to live in. Almost all respondents express a preference for living in integrated neighborhoods but few – especially households with children – actually do so, as Northwestern University sociologist Lincoln Quillian shows in his research. It can also be measured in the role of implicit racial bias and patterns of racially disparate impact, measurement of which are limited by judicial rulings, but which are nonetheless observable in health statistics, labor market participation and unemployment levels, and in criminal justice outcomes. Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler has also shown in recent papers how much attitudes about race continue to influence electoral choices, particularly to such issues as President Obama’s health care reform. 

Sheryll Cashin’s book is a timely intervention into a critical public policy challenge – how to devise policies that effectively address enduring material racial inequalities. Her proposal is an imaginative attempt to find a political space between the partisan and policy divisions represented in color-blind and race conscious frameworks, and this sort of pragmatic engagement is to be welcomed. The issue it leaves us to consider however is how to deal with the structural and political forces producing the conditions of segregation which make such middle way schemes necessary in the first place. Cashin is quite right to formulate a policy proposal requiring intervention by the American federal State (working in liaison with universities) but this intervention will have to be much more far-reaching  and race sensitive materially to advance racial inequality.

Desmond King is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford. His books include Making Americans: Immigration, Race and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy (2002), Separate and Unequal : African Americans and the US Federal Government (2007), and (with Rogers M. Smith) Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama's America (2011).

More in Discussion 5: Place-Based Affirmative Action