Blog #52 – Place, Not Race: The Slippery Slope of Non-Affirmative Action

Place, Not Race: The Slippery Slope of Non-Affirmative Action

Sheryll Cashin argues that “we should use place, rather than race, in diversity programming” – specifically, in admissions policies to higher education.[1] She admits that that there is “an achievement gap that has made race-based affirmative action necessary,” but, because ”affirmative action is on life support” in the present Court, she argues that “the use of place, rather than race, in diversity programming will better approximate the structural disadvantages many children of color actually endure.” But she is on a slippery slope, where justified disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Schuette case and efforts to get around it lead acceptance of it as permanent public policy and to a questionable legal strategy of injecting place, seeing it as race at one remove as a substitute, mistaking a spatial indicator of the existence of racism for racism itself, and in the process abandoning the political recognition of racism as an ongoing evil still needing to be fought by all possible means, including affirmative action itself. A possible legal ply because rationalized as an empirically justified retreat from the recognition of racism as an evil in itself.

Cashin’s suggestion of the greater emphasis on place, theoretically by-passing the Supreme Court’s objects to using race per se, is certainly a possibility lawyers can explore where affirmative action is actually the goal but seems legally blocked. But it is itself a vulnerable approach. Logically, if racial composition of an applicant’s place of residence is i one of the factors considered in defining what characteristics of a place should give be given extra weight in judging an application of admission, then race is indeed still being taken into account, and the approach will fall victim to the Supreme Court’s present slim majority’s apparent dedication to color-blindness. Indeed, HUD’s interest in mapping that “combines basic demographic data (age, race, disability status, English proficiency, and poverty)” is explicit in the reference to race, and may yet be successfully challenged before the present Supreme Court.[2]

The very title of Cashin’s book and subsequent article reveals the problem: “Place, not Race.” “Place Reveals Race” would be defensible, added to an already substantial body of scholarship showing the ongoing existence of discrimination and segregation by race in shaping geographic patterns. Instead, the proposal substitutes place equity for racial equity. Inequity of place is certainly statistically correlated to inequities of race, but the causal path goes from racism to spatial pattern, not vice versa.[3]

The issue of racism, and of affirmative action as among possible remedies, is not simply a legal issue. It is inherently political. Cashin’s defense for dropping consideration of race in college admissions is that including it “raises the question of whether the marginal benefits of getting more blacks into elite institutions… are worth the political costs of continued racial division.”[4] She advocates “race-neutral reforms” as the path to creating a racially diverse politics in which “white working class whites and people of color share a common agenda,” an eminently desirable goal, but until it is reached ducking the question of racism is not race-neutral, but supports the status quo.

To suggest that it can be avoided by measures dealing with poverty, “neighborhood characteristics,” “oppositional culture,” or other characteristics of place, should be recognized as questionable policy. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in the Schuette case is eloquent testimony to the continued importance of race. Taking race out of the equation diminishes the opportunity to address racism. Cashin’s implicit legitimation of the practice is counter-productive.

A New York Times story,[5] seen after I wrote the above, reinforces the point. It compares an “economic diversity” approach with a “racial diversity” approach, favoring the latter as an alternative to affirmative action in college admissions, and citing the Cashin book as a source. The article doesn’t pretend to compare either approach to an affirmative action approach. In the figures it presents, black/Hispanic comes out at 10% of admissions, in “racial diversity”, using income as a factor, and 16% with “economic diversity,” using income as a factor. Even completely randomizing, Black/Hispanic are at least 30%. There’s no doubt affirmative action would produce a much higher result.

But beyond that, the logic is treacherous. The “economic diversity” approach includes “parents’ income education, and occupation.” Blacks and Hispanics are of course disproportionately in the low end of those categories include a majority of whites. If race were also taken into account, the proportion of blacks admitted would be substantially higher, and if race were the sole factor, even much higher.

Logically, the argument is strange. It is in the first place passing strange to hold that race, a constitutionally protected category, cannot be considered and positively addressed in admissions policies, but parentage or occupation, not constitutionally protected, can.[6] And if the standard of success is indeed measured by the proportion of black/Hisp in the student body under the different approaches, and if it is accepted, as it should be, that race enters clearly into parents’ income, education, and occupation, then if one wants to remedy the injustices of racism, one has to isolate it as a factor in income, education, and occupation as well as in applications for college admission. The best indicator of how racism has affected the lot of applicants to college is to look at the percentage of black/Hisp admissions compared to their percentage in the population as a whole. Assuming the good will of college admissions officers, using parents’ incomes as a criteria in admissions indeed favors blacks/Hisp, because race affects income, but so do other factors; it’s not a 100% correlation. If one want to deal with the impact of race, one needs to deal with race, not just with one partial correlative of race. Adding other partial correlatives, e.g. place, or occupation or education, helps only marginally.

Lawyers in constitutional litigation of course have to deal with Justice Roberts’ vacuous proclamation:

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stoop discriminating on the basis of race” [1].

as best they can. But perhaps the court will one day go back to Justice Blackmun’s “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.” [8]

In the meantime, it should be remembered, certainly by social scientists and professors, that the purpose of affirmative action is not simply to get more black/Hispanic applicants into universities, but to help end racism, the unconstitutional discrimination against individuals because of their race.

[1] “Place, Not Race: Affirmative Action and the Geography of Opportunity.” Poverty and Race Research Action Council, vol. 23, No. 3, May-June 2014.

[2] Indeed, another well-reasoned argument for “Community-Driven Exclusion Mapping” by Peter Gilbert, in the same issue cited above, is explicit in its advocacy of racial composition and segregation in viewing patterns of housing use.

[3] It is unclear if Cashin shares this view. She writes: “…racial and economic segregation beget racial inequality,” p, 2. “Beget” may simply be an unfortunate choice of words.

[4] Op. cit., p. 10.

[5] David Leonhardt, “If Affirmative Action is Doomed, What’s Next?” New York Times, June 17, 2014, p.3.

[6] Countless anti-discrimination laws explicitly list race as a protected category, and a statistical evidence showing impact by race is widely allowed in evidence to help judge the existence of an impermissible disparate racial impact.

[7] Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).

[8] Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (11978)



Author: pmarcuse

Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome.

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