Excerpted from PLACE, NOT RACE: A NEW VISION OF OPPORTUNITY IN AMERICA by Sheryll Cashin by arrangement with Beacon Press, Copyright © Sheryll Cashin 2014
This book is about fairness. The US economy has become a pyramid in which nearly three-quarters of the jobs that will become available in this decade are predicted to pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year and require only a high school diploma or less. The so-called knowledge economy belongs to the few able to enter it, and the traditional gateway is selective higher education. I focus in this book on the structural barriers to accessing high-opportunity colleges for this reason. Fairness requires that their doors be open to all exceptional achievers, not just those who are already advantaged. The stratifications of K-12 education are mirrored in higher education, and in both systems the phenomenon of “opportunity hoarding” described by sociologist Charles Tilley seems to be at work.
Those blessed to occupy golden neighborhoods and schools are most likely to enter equally golden colleges. Intentionally or not, they can block access by those outside their advantaged networks through in-group sanctioned practices like legacy preferences, “merit” aid, and the overuse of standardized test scores that track income status. Ironically, race-based affirmative action may also contribute to the hoarding phenomenon because advantaged racial minorities are most likely to benefit from the policy, and, as I argue, the optical diversity this creates undermines the possibility that elite colleges will rethink exclusionary practices.
In this book, I challenge universities to reform both affirmative action and the entire admissions process. But hoarding of selective education is only one strain of the unfairness that pervades America. My aim is to begin a larger conversation about how to create a politics of fairness that will help the vast majority of Americans who will not attend Harvard, Yale, or the University of Illinois.
A professional black woman describes to me her sister’s fury when black children from low-income neighborhoods were given preferences to improve their access to sought-after magnet programs in Chicago public schools. The sister was angry when her middle-class black kids who did not live in the ‘hood did not gain entrance, although they had better academic records. Is this what America has come to—a country where advantaged people of all colors look at growing inequality and are reduced to invoking numerical standards that block out others, and complaining when those others do gain access? Is this the country you want to live in, dear reader?
FAIRNESS IN COLLEGE ADMISSIONS
Abigail Fisher had a complaint that resonated with most Americans. The cherub-faced strawberry blond wanted her dream school, the University of Texas, to evaluate her and her competitors without any consideration of race. She did not want to be seen as a white girl from a suburb named Sugar Land, presumably the wrong race and place in a withering competition that has gone global. Nor did she think it fair that other applicants might benefit from having more melanin. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only difference between us was the color of our skin,” she said in a YouTube video posted by her lawyers.
Her argument is one we’ve heard before. Blacks and Latinos with lower test scores and grades than hers got in and that, she concluded, violated her right to equal protection under the Constitution. It didn’t matter to Fisher or her lawyers that forty-two white applicants with lower numbers than hers were also admitted. They focused on the theoretical possibility that the five applicants of color with lower scores who gained entrance may have succeeded where Fisher failed, solely because of their race.
Who knows for certain why Fisher did not emerge from ambiguity? Had she graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class, she would have gained automatic entrance to the flagship university that both her father and sister attended. Instead she and other less stellar applicants had to compete head to head for the remaining 19 percent of slots in the UT Class of 2012. Her application probably landed in the “maybe” pile, its occupants neither obvious admits nor rejects. These are the applications conscientious admissions officers agonize over. A strong, authentic voice crying out from an absorbing personal essay or a soaring letter of recommendation that rings as true can make the difference.
In addition to high school rank and standardized test scores, UT considered personal achievement based upon two essays and factors like leadership, extracurricular activities, community service, work experience, socioeconomic status, and—the eternal bugaboo—race. Fisher’s argument that race played a definitive role certainly resonates with how most white people feel about affirmative action in higher education. They think it is unfair to them and their children, and this explains why many institutions have been retreating from considering race in admissions.
The Supreme Court’s 2013 compromise decision in Fisher v. Texas extended the life of race-based affirmative action. But there will always be another Abigail Fisher. When a disgruntled applicant sues, defenders of an affirmative action policy must convince the court that there are “no workable race-neutral alternatives” to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. Conservatives will continue to attack the policy in courts and through politics. With one exception, every time the issue of affirmative action has been placed on a state ballot, voters have banned the policy. As this book went to print, the Supreme Court had heard argument but not issued a decision in the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, in which the ability of Michigan voters to ban affirmative action is challenged. At oral argument, conservative justices seemed inclined to uphold the ban. However the court rules, political opposition to use of race in college admissions will continue.
This is particularly easy politics for Republicans. On the day Barack Obama was re-elected president, voters in Oklahoma approved an amendment to their state constitution to prohibit affirmative action based upon race, gender, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting. At the time this was the third ban successfully sponsored by Republican state legislators in three years. They no longer needed a black man, Ward Connerly, for cover. Political mobilization against affirmative action accords with the mood of a browning country in which white guys increasingly feel victimized. White anxiety about changing demographics shows up in online comments like one by “Andrew,” who identified himself as living in the South. Opining on a New York Times story about California universities that had responded to a state ban on racial preferences by spending as much as $85 million on outreach and mentoring to expand the pipeline of college-ready applicants of color, Andrew wrote:
Diversity = fewer white people, even in places where white people are already a minority, both in terms of their representation in the general population and their presence on campuses. If judges ban affirmative action, the ideologues who run our institutions of higher education will simply ignore the law and proclaim “holistic admission practices” in order to decrease the number of white students admitted, much as they have done in California, Michigan and elsewhere in recent years.
His was among the most recommended comments on the story, presumably because it resonated with many white readers. White anxiety will continue to rise as more whites become minorities in their states or communities. Institutions necessarily are changing to accommodate domestic demographic change and globalization. The future is Rice University: today, at this preeminent school founded on a “whites-only” charter, less than half of the undergraduates are white Americans. At Rice, native students of color and international students are taking places that literally were once reserved for white people, and some whites are not dealing well with such transitions.
THE PERCEPTION GAP
A student of mine testifies to the angst whites share with him because he is a member of that club—honest tribal talk that I will only hear if a race traitor like my student shares it with me. My student—I will call him Ted— tells me about a former Dalton School classmate who was livid when his four-year-old did not get into their alma mater’s pre-K class, half of which was now populated by the rainbow. Dalton is an elite prep school on New York’s Upper East Side with a reputation for progressivism that decided in 2007 to make diversity “an integral part of school life,” according to its mission statement. By 2011, the numbers of non-white kindergarteners went from 6 percent to 47 percent of the entering class, with predictable commentary from disappointed parents on UrbanBaby.com. “They took my kid’s spot!” Ted’s ostensibly liberal, shut-out former classmate exclaimed. Even one-percenters are forced to adapt. As Ted relates the story to me, he titters with nervous laughter and recognition. When friends or strangers raise this complaint, should he question their underlying assumptions of entitlement and superiority, or just let them vent?
Such gripes, and worse, are easy to find online. Just read the comments to any news story about affirmative action. Jonica Witherspoon, a graduate of Northwestern, confessed to a reporter in the Chicago Sun-Times that given her scores on standardized tests, she “probably wouldn’t have made the cut to attend Northwestern” if she were not African American. She did not begrudge affluent Jamaicans and Nigerians, “who may have taken a spot that would have gone to somebody from, say, Chicago’s West Side.” “It’s good for you,” she said. “You see these successful, smart people out there who are black and you think, ‘Maybe I can be one of them. Maybe I can do better.’ An online commenter identified as Razz Barry felt differently: “I resent her taking the place of some white man, with higher test scores, who may have discovered a cure for cancer, invented a fuel to end our dependency on Arab oil . . .” He trailed off .
Barry’s suggestion that affirmative action squelches opportunity for would-be white heroes overlooks the fact that Superman leaps over obstacles. Were he rejected by Northwestern, most likely Clark Kent would be accepted and thrive elsewhere. Abigail Fisher declined an offer to attend a different Texas institution, with a possibility of later transferring to UT. Instead she sued, leaving her case to activist lawyers and heading off to Louisiana State University, where she graduated with a degree in finance in 2012. Through her own resilience and determination, her life did not grind to a halt. That said, many people feel her pain.
In a 2012 Rasmussen poll, 55 percent of respondents opposed affirmative action in college admissions. In a 2009 Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters, 55 percent said affirmative action should be abolished. Although proponents of affirmative action argue that such programs advance only qualified minorities and don’t disadvantage others, as the Quinnipiac pollsters put it, “voters see a zero-sum game in which someone—generally white males—loses when someone else gains.” For the white parent who fills Adderall prescriptions for a teenager for whom “above average” is not good enough, observing Cosby kids advance is a provocation.
Although legions of non-blacks and women have benefited from affirmative action, inconveniently for its proponents, the policy has a black face and remains a dog whistle for political mobilization. It is hard for non-blacks to see blacks as disadvantaged and needing affirmative action when examples of black success are ubiquitous, from Obama to Oprah to
Jay-Z, not to mention black bosses non-blacks may report to, fictional black surgeons and lawyers they encounter on TV, and well-dressed black people driving expensive cars they occasionally notice on their daily commute. Americans are also now regularly offered steamy examples of interracial romance on small and large screens. Even a dark-skinned brother is now allowed to seduce a pale woman, the ultimate suggestion of black equality.
While non-blacks see real and virtual examples of black success every day, they don’t see black poverty, because they are removed from the deprivations of ghetto neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, only 49 percent of participants in a 2009 Pew survey believed that African Americans were subject to “a lot of discrimination.” A majority of survey participants did perceive other groups as enduring serious discrimination: Latinos (52 percent), Muslims (58 percent), and gays and lesbians (64 percent).
African Americans have arrived, in the minds of many non-blacks. In a 2007 Pew survey of racial attitudes, 84 percent of participants had a favorable view of African Americans, while only 10 percent expressed an unfavorable view of them. Since Barack Obama was elected president, however, more people express explicitly anti-black views. And a large body of research by social psychologists demonstrates that most people harbor subconscious biases about black people. Americans remain complicated about race. We are at war with ourselves inside our heads. Despite biases against “the other,” the vast majority of all Americans view racial discrimination as wrong, even un-American, and self-identify as anti-racist. Their anti-racist identity coupled with ubiquitous examples of black success likely inform their judgment that affirmative action is unfair and no longer necessary.
In opinion polls, African Americans register the strongest support for affirmative action. This is not hard to understand. Those on the receiving end of real or perceived racial discrimination—from taxis that pass them by to security guards who trail them in clothing stores to bad schools or incarcerated family members—also harbor a sense of grievance. The civil rights revolution is not over yet. Watching Obama on TV and the race pride that engenders does not make up for twice the unemployment, nearly three times the poverty, and six times the incarceration that white people endure. In the consciously black mind, history and present-day inequalities are frontal. Black folks live with a constant awareness of the myriad ways in which race can obstruct, interfere, or in nightmarish, Trayvon-esque scenarios, ruin one’s life. For many African Americans, affirmative action is a modest palliative, but a fair one, given the systemic forces black people endured historically and continue to face.
As I describe in this book, these gaps of perception about race undermine possibilities for opponents and proponents of affirmative action to join forces to make systems of education and opportunity better and more responsive to everyone. To borrow an apt phrase from a self-described “gun guy” who seeks common ground between his gun-toting brothers and gun-control advocates who may be clueless or dismissive about the culture of huntsmen, “there is no tree for these folks to gather under.” On the issue of affirmative action, there are no forums for addressing common concerns, or even building a sense of the common good. The civil rights tent is not viewed as a place where the concerns of struggling whites will be heard. Movement conservatives allied against affirmative action are viewed with suspicion by many people of color. This perception gap puts universities that are serious about diversity in a quandary. Going forward, should they still try to use race and risk lawsuits from disappointed white applicants? Or risk the ire of Republican state legislators who have picked up the movement Ward Connelly began?
I prefer place, rather than race, as the focus of affirmative action for the pragmatic reason that it will foster more social cohesion and a better politics. More importantly, it will help those actually disadvantaged by segregation. Those who suffer the deprivations of high-poverty neighborhoods and schools are deserving of special consideration. Those blessed to come of age in poverty-free havens are not. Race still matters in American society, particularly in the criminal justice system. But race is under-inclusive. As Walter Benn Michaels, professor at the University of Illinois, bluntly put it to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education: “When students and faculty activists struggle for cultural diversity, they are in large part battling over what skin color the rich kids have.”
As I will show in subsequent chapters, race does not, by definition, capture those who suffer the structural disadvantages of segregated schools and neighborhoods. Race is also over-inclusive in that it can capture people with dark skin who are exceedingly advantaged. African immigrants, on average, are better educated than every American subgroup, including Asians and whites. The mantra of diversity might be applied to a school that admits African elites or their American cousins, like Sasha, Malia, Blue Ivy, or my kids. But diversity by phenotype puts no pressure on institutions to dismantle underlying systems of exclusion that propagate inequality.
When President Lyndon Johnson framed the argument for affirmative action at a commencement address at Howard University in 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an infant. The antidiscrimination principle the act embodied, so widely embraced today, was also new and meeting resistance. About half of blacks, still “Negroes” at the time, lived below the poverty line. The black middle class was beginning to emerge. A two-parent black professional family, for example a teacher and an equal employment opportunity officer at IBM, would likely have been trained at historically black institutions and needed a lift to gain entry into predominately white ones. Centuries of exclusionary habits didn’t die easily; affirmative efforts were needed, Johnson argued. “This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights,” he intoned. “We seek not just freedom . . . but equality as a fact and as a result.”
Back then, race and gender were appropriate markers for the type of exclusion practiced by most predominately white universities. Today, place is a more appropriate indicator of who gets excluded from consideration by admissions officers at selective institutions. Every high school in America has a cadre of strivers. Diversity by skin color enables universities to bypass achievers from inner-city, rural, and struggling suburban environs—kids who weren’t handed perfection but did their very best with what they had. Phenotypic diversity also assuages what is left of white guilt and helps mask exclusion. Affluent people of all colors who call an SAT score merit are complicit in this.
THE PROMISE OF BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION
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.
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