The Dream Revisited

Place Not Race: Reforming Affirmative Action to Redress Neighborhood Inequality

by Sheryll Cashin | July 2014

Race-based affirmative action should be reformed to help those actually disadvantaged by segregation. There are many ironies about affirmative action as it is currently practiced in selective higher education. First, it does nothing to help most black and Latino students, the vast majority of which will attend non-selective institutions, if they enter higher education at all. Second, it tends to benefit highly advantaged students of color, disproportionately children of immigrants, who tend to live in integrated settings. Those blessed to come of age in poverty-free havens have access to highly selective K-12 education that sets them up well to enter selective higher education. Those who live outside of advantaged neighborhoods and networks -- as do most African-American and Latino children -- must overcome serious structural disadvantages, including under-resourced schools with less experienced teachers, fewer high-achieving peers that raise expectations and model the habits of success, and exposure to violence. A third irony is that race-based affirmative action engenders resentment, particularly among whites, that makes it more difficult to garner support for public policies that will redress the structural barriers that most children of color face.

I argue that colleges and universities have an ethical obligation to consider high-achieving students from under-resourced places. Currently, only 42% of Americans live in a middle class neighborhood (down from 65% in 1970). Only 30% of black and Latino families do. For some time, advocates of race-neutral strategies have focused on class or first-generation college attendance as a means of achieving socioeconomic, if not racial diversity. However, class-based affirmative action that focuses only on family income does not capture the structural disadvantages that cause opportunity hoarding in American society. Place locks in advantages and disadvantages that are reinforced over time. Geographic separation of the classes puts affluent, higher opportunity communities in direct competition with lower-opportunity places for finite public and private resources. And affluent jurisdictions are winning.

Increasingly, highly educated families with multiple degrees are also segregating into their own environs, places thick with what I call “college-knowledge.” Children, like my own, that grow up surrounded by doctors, lawyers, prize-winning journalists and World Bank economists, rise easily on the benefits of shared networks and practices that lead to success. Economic segregation is rising fastest among blacks and Latinos. Anyone who can afford to buy their way into a high-opportunity neighborhood or school usually does. Only 17 counties in the U.S. currently boast a population with more than half college graduates – places that elite college recruiters flock to. The college educated used to be much more evenly dispersed in American society. And yet there are high-achieving students in inner-cities, struggling suburbs and rural hamlets too. A high-achieving student from a low-opportunity place (e.g., where more than 20 percent of their peers are poor) is deserving of special consideration, regardless of his or her skin color. No one deserves affirmative action simply because they have dark skin or because her parent is an alumnus of her dream school. In addition to helping high-achieving students that are actually disadvantaged, place-based affirmative action has the benefit of encouraging rather than discouraging cross-racial alliances among the majority of Americans who are locked out of resource-rich environs.

In my book, I cite the example of the Texas Ten Percent Plan and the coalition of strange bedfellows that supports it. The Plan guarantees admission to a public college to graduating seniors in the top 10 percent of every high school in the state. It was enacted by the Texas legislature, after a temporary court ban on race-based affirmative action, with the support of blacks, Latinos and a lone rural Republican who realized that his constituents were not gaining entrance to the University of Texas. The law ended the dominance of a small number of wealthy high schools in UT admissions and it changed the college-going behavior of high achievers in remote places that had never bothered to apply to UT Austin. Of course, parents in wealthy school attendance zones have repeatedly attacked the plan as unfair, but in the Texas House of Representatives, white Republicans from rural districts, blacks and Latinos strongly support the plan and have insulated it from repeal. The end result is a successful public policy that enhances opportunity across the state and a more cohesive politics--at least on the issue of access to higher education. Percentage plans are not the only solution but this illustrates the type of transformative policies and politics that diversity advocates could achieve with fresh thinking.

In addition to giving special consideration to coming from a low-opportunity neighborhood or school, I argue that the entire admissions process should be scrubbed of unfair exclusionary practices that do not promote university mission. Standardized tests should be optional or not used at all. Instead, admissions offices should focus on cumulative high school GPA and the non-cognitive attributes -- grit, resilience, scholarly dedication and a willingness to forgo recreation for academics -- that most reliably predict success. Financial aid should be based solely on need, not so-called merit. Legacy preferences should be abolished, as has been done by the University of California and other institutions that no longer consider race in admissions. As I explain throughout my book, systems of opportunity increasingly work only for people who are already advantaged and colleges and universities have an ethical obligation to mitigate these trends or at least to not reinforce them. Hopefully, we will soon reach a tipping point where colleges and universities and the people who love them throw off the oppressions of rankings and throw a hammer to the whole admissions process and start breaking things -- to restore common sense, fairness and real opportunity to America.

Sheryll Cashin is Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center and author of Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportuntiy in America. She tweets at @SheryllCashin

More in Discussion 5: Place-Based Affirmative Action