Rethinking Affirmative Action

In her new book, law professor Sheryll Cashin considers the implications of location for education and race in 21st-century America.

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People walk on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
People walk on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Sheryll Cashin’s new book, Place Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America, poses a fresh challenge to status-quo arguments swirling around the decaying use of affirmative action to achieve diversity on U.S. college and university campuses.

As matters presently stand, race-based affirmative action is dead. I’ve argued this before, and the Supreme Court’s 6­–2 vote last month to uphold Michigan’s constitutional amendment banning affirmative action was yet another sounding of the death knell.

When they heard it, critics of affirmative action cheered. Jennifer Gratz—the lead plaintiff in the 2003 Supreme Court case, Gratz v. Bollinger, which successfully challenged affirmative action at the University of Michigan, and co-founder of the XIV Foundation, a conservative group that fights race-based preference programs—sent out a series of tweets supporting the decision.

But some proponents of affirmative action, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, aren’t ready to give up the fight. In her stinging dissent of the court’s decision, Sotomayor argued that the court not only got it wrong on affirmative action, but also threatened the nation’s democracy in the process. Sotomayor wrote in her dissent:

For members of historically marginalized groups, which rely on the federal courts to protect their constitutional rights, the decision can hardly bolster hope for a vision of democracy that preserves for all the right to participate meaningfully and equally in self-government.

Wedging her arguments between these two extremes, Cashin isn’t likely to make friends in either camp. She does, however, make the case for the existence of a “perception gap” between people of color and whites about the extent of discrimination, which prevents political compromise on touchy racial issues. A laundry list of studies and facts supports her thesis, she notes, including a 2009 CNN survey that “found 55 percent of blacks thought discrimination was a very serious problem, while only 17 percent of whites felt that way.” Discussing yet another psychological study, she writes, “[W]hites and people of color have different perceptions about the extent of racial equality because they have different frames of reference.”

Those “different frames of reference,” Cashin accurately observes, are less a matter of race in the 21st century and increasingly an issue of where in the nation people live. Despite the melting pot theory, Americans are currently living separate lives in communities strictly outlined by race. As Cashin puts it, “[W]hites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians tend to experience diversity very differently in their daily lives.”

So how can Americans achieve racial fairness if the birds-eye view of the nation is a patchwork quilt and the on-the-ground experience is starkly segregated?

Cashin argues that what we know of affirmative action—the race-based strategies that the right and left are fighting so fiercely over—will not solve the problem because it doesn’t include discussion of the truly disadvantaged Americans, who are disproportionately black and brown schoolchildren isolated in communities with high poverty rates and poor schools. She writes:

This differential experience of place greatly affects opportunity. Only about 30 percent of black and Latino families reside in neighborhoods where less than half of the people are poor. Put differently, less than one-third of the black and Latino children get to live in middle-class neighborhoods where middle-class norms predominate. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of white and Asian families live in environs where most of their neighbors are not poor.

Her solution is for policymakers to substitute “place” for “race” when devising strategies to equalize educational opportunities. Such an effort would reshape the structural disadvantages crippling many children of color and potentially ease the racial resentment that affirmative action spawns among so many white Americans.

Fairness dictates that I disclose that Cashin, a law professor at Georgetown University, is a friend and neighbor. I’ve read both her personal memoir, The Agitator’s Daughter, and a subsequent book, The Failures of Integration. I like the iconoclastic way she thinks—honed by a lifetime of family activism on behalf of black people and her own scholarly personality.

Furthermore, her writing isn’t to be confused with an appeal for popularity. She’s serious about forcing progressive thinkers to embrace new ways of thinking about how the nation might unstick itself from the hard and hardening views on all matters that touch race. This hardening has happened before, Cashin writes, noting that when the values of white Americans converge with those of blacks and other people of color, great things have happened, including, the abolition of slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and, most recently, the election and re-election of our first black president.

“I think the country is ripe for another leap forward,” she writes in what can be interpreted as a clarion call for liberal activism, “but progressives have to bring about reconciliation to make it happen. Each social transformation has been followed by a period of backlash, and there is evidence that we are in such a period now.”

After making a convincing and scholarly argument, Cashin concludes Place, Not Race in the most personal and emotive way. She writes an epistolary epilogue titled “A Letter to My Sons,” in which she notes that they are unlikely to benefit from affirmative action. Yet she offers them hope:

I would trade the benefit of affirmative action for a country that does not fear and demonize people who look like you. We have to begin to heal this country, to set it on a new course of fairness. If we accept the system as it is—affirmative action for a few—we have given up, I think, on the idea of America. I’m not ready to do that.

If Cashin is right—and I believe that she is—even if race-based affirmative action were to survive a miraculous rise from its apparent grave, her sons shouldn’t receive its benefits. No, any and all help must be directed to those ignored children hidden in the shadows of impoverished communities.

By any standard of fairness, what my friend wants for her sons is what our society should demand for every child in America.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

Applications are now open for the next class of the CAP Leadership Institute. For more information about the Fellows program or to apply, please follow this link. The deadline for applying is July 18, 2014.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)