Let’s Apply Affirmative Action Based on Present-Day Segregation, Not Race

Despite suggestions to the contrary, Place, Not Race is about finding the best ways for affirmative action programs in admissions to aid students who still face segregation.

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In his recent case for reparations, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates offers this startling fact: “Black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.”

It underpins one of his main arguments: that black folks uniquely were victims of intentional, government-sponsored racial segregation that endures and must be compensated for if America is to overcome its original sin of racial hierarchy and oppression. I agree with him about the history and profound impacts of segregation, particularly the inflicted damage of concentrated neighborhood poverty—again, a government creation born of racial discrimination. In that light, then, it’s odd that commentators like the American Prospect’s Richard Rothstein and The Root’s Blair L.M. Kelley suggest that I’m abandoning middle-class African Americans, since my proposed reforms to affirmative action are designed to counter precisely the structural disadvantages that most black Americans face.

Only about 30 percent of black children live in a middle-class neighborhood, defined as one where more than half of residents are not considered poor. Proximity to poverty is a common, lived experience for African-American families of varying incomes. But if universities were to follow my proposal—as I’ve outlined in Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America—of giving special consideration to any high achiever who lives in a neighborhood or attends a school where 20 percent or more of their peers are poor, this would help the vast majority of black and Latino children who currently suffer the disadvantages of segregation. Among those disadvantages are less-experienced teachers, high teacher turnover, inadequate facilities and learning materials, and fewer high-achieving peers who raise expectations and model the habits of success.

I also argue that any high achiever who comes from low family wealth deserves affirmative action, precisely for reasons Coates identifies: For African Americans, low family wealth is a direct legacy of virulent racial discrimination, particularly in housing. I also argue that standardized tests should be optional or not used at all; that financial aid should return to being based solely upon need, not so-called merit; that legacy preferences should be scrapped; and that institutions that are serious about diversity should work with partner organizations like the Posse Foundation and Questbridge, which are astute at finding disadvantaged achievers who are prepared to succeed at elite institutions.

As economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery have demonstrated (pdf), each year there are thousands of low-income African-American and Latino students who graduate with an average of A- or better and who break the 90th percentile on the SAT. No doubt there are thousands more middle-income black and brown students who also meet this standard. But selective colleges have to do things differently to find, recruit and support the high achievers of color who do exist. Ironically, racial preferences that disproportionately benefit students who do not suffer the disadvantages of segregation disincentivize elite schools from making the effort.

All of my recommended reforms would redound to the benefit not only of poor black achievers but also of middle-class and even affluent ones. Of course there is a risk that institutions might cherry-pick among my proposals and stop using race without tackling opportunity-hoarding practices like “merit” aid and overreliance on standardized tests. But that has not been the case at institutions that have been forced to stop using race by courts or voters. In states with bans on using race as a factor in admissions, research indicates that when institutions use a holistic admissions process that focuses on cumulative high school GPA, the resources students have had available to them and whether they took the most challenging courses available, colleges come close to and often exceed the diversity numbers they were able to achieve with consideration of race.

It’s worth noting, too, that cumulative high school GPA plus the willingness to forgo recreation for academics are the two strongest predictors of college success, while—by contrast—standardized test scores are most predictive of the income of the test takers’ parents.

The Supreme Court’s decisions in the Fisher and Schuette cases will force more institutions to innovate and do the hard work of widening the pipeline to selective higher education—a reality that my critics blithely ignore. Our ideas and strategies must be dangerous to the status quo, because the present trend is one of erosion and exclusion. Holding on to the shreds of a dying policy and praying for a change of personnel on the Supreme Court is not a viable strategy for anyone who wants to see more—not less—inclusion in higher education. We should, therefore, be capable of recognizing and adjusting to this complexity, and of discerning the difference between a wealthy black person who doesn’t need affirmative action and a high achiever of any color who comes from low family wealth or a low-opportunity neighborhood. The latter two categories, which accurately reflect the legacy of American apartheid, are much more viable politically and legally than race.

Those college-bound students who have escaped the enduring structures of Jim Crow or who never experienced them in the first place will be OK. They will get into a very good college, even an elite one, if they invest extra hours in academics. Those who have not escaped segregation, a group that includes most African Americans, are being excluded and need the obstacles they face to be acknowledged and mitigated.

This will help shed the notion that there is something wrong with black Americans. As Coates argues, what’s wrong is that they are disproportionately subjected to segregation. It is, then, segregation, and not black skin, that must be accounted for. There is a clear moral case for mitigating separate and unequal schooling, and that case will endure as long as segregation endures. Not so with race.

If advocates of affirmative action want people to believe in the abilities of black children, we must stop treating them as if blackness itself needs to be accommodated. Diversity strategies that focus on helping achievers overcome structural disadvantages will also help to dismantle stereotypes. Colleges that jettison exclusionary practices and focus on factors that are relevant to a student’s ability to excel academically will raise the completion rates of all students.

Posse Foundation scholars’ median combined SAT score of 1050 would not predict the enormous success these determined youths have in thriving at and graduating from selective schools. And on campuses that make the connection between grit and merit, disadvantaged students will be less vulnerable to stereotype threat—the incorrect assumption that they don’t belong and can’t compete. Unlike my critics, I have confidence that African-American students can meet standards of excellence without consideration of race. An affirmative action policy that doesn’t explicitly correct for the disadvantages most black achievers must overcome tells them otherwise.

Sheryll Cashin is a professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center and author of Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America. Follow her on Twitter.

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