The Dream Revisited

Race and Place

by Gerald Torres | July 2014

Yi Fu Tuan was a geographer at Minnesota when I taught there in the law school. When thinking about the arguments advanced by Professor Cashin, I thought of Yi Fu Tuan’s books "Space and Place" and "Landscapes of Fear". In those books Tuan discusses the experience of place and the anxieties that places create. He is careful to stress that the nature of a place is derived as much from its meaning as from its brute social or physical characteristics. We know a place in many ways and often they provide a kind of compass both real and imagined that guides us in our further interpretations of the world and conditions our experience of new places. 

For example, when I am asked where I am from, I often say, “the real California,” not the California of the tourist ad, although that place, too. But the California of steel mills, orchards, hard cities and race riots. Of hard working people and limitless sunshine. Of race and class conflict and of loving kindness.  But what it meant for me was an orientation towards the future that has colored everything ever since. It was a place where I did not have to wonder about belonging because I was of it. Its richness in experience, its thickness with human relations matched its biologic fertility and that fertility was expressed in the diversity of life and of landscape whether natural or created. The scale of life and thus the scale of promise were larger. I can be certain that the California I miss no longer exists, although aspects of it still do. 

The spirit of that promise was tapped in the search for alternatives to race conscious affirmative action after the Hopwood case. My ruminations on Tuan, bolstered my impulse to discuss the Texas Ten Percent Plan (TTP); after all, I had a front row seat in its creation and implementation. The TTP was born in the antagonisms of racial politics in a State that is not only a former slave state and part of the Confederacy, but which was also part of another country and home to native people displaced by one wave of European colonists after another. The complex history of the State has left it with a deep populist bent and a geography that is racially, ethnically, and economically segregated. Its populism led to the adoption of a constitution that committed itself to creating opportunity through education, though it took litigation to make the obligation real. 

The TTP is a further expression of that commitment. It measured excellence by assessing whether graduates had done everything asked of them. If they did, then they could go on to the university.  One high school might be better than another, but you couldn’t blame the students; they had cleared the challenges put in front of them. By making the guarantee universal, the TTP ensured that every part of the state could be represented in the entering class of the flagship university. But it also meant that ultimately those students would transform the university as well as themselves. The university really could become an engine of change in the lives of a vast cross section of Texans and it would stop serving only a small slice of the population. Those who valued the university would have to reject the idea that it existed to serve only the economic elite of the state. It would have to serve all Texans and it would have to become a better university to do it. The University of Texas had to make space for kids from the small towns of West Texas or the Rio Grande Valley as well as the big cities like Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio. Excellence does not know those boundaries, just as excellence does not know the boundaries of race, nationality, or class. And this reimagining of opportunity would create a new politics that enabled people to link hands together with those they might never have thought of as having the same interests or sharing the same fate. 

So what does this have to do with Professor Cashin’s arguments? Only this, she is right. There has to be a new way to approach how our social places are constructed. Where we are from and where we are going are places constructed by law, too. We have to imagine them as a sources of change that facilitate the creation of a political space that can be open to the possibility of democratic richness and where the promise of an open future can take root.

Gerald Torres is the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law at Cornell University and is a leading figure in critical race theory, environmental law, and federal Indian Law. Torres previously served as the President of the Assoication of American Law Schools and the Bryant Smith Chair in Law at the University of Texas School of Law.

More in Discussion 5: Place-Based Affirmative Action