What the Book Place, Not Race Doesn’t Get: There’s Still a Place for Race-Based Affirmative Action

Before we phase out racial considerations in college admissions, let’s remember that historically, affirmative action helped preserve the gains of the civil rights era.

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Cover of Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America

Beacon Press

I vividly remember the affirmative action debates that raged on my campus when I was a college student in the early ’90s. Many of our debates centered on Stephen L. Carter’s Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. To me, Carter was a person who had benefited from his inclusion in formerly all-white spaces who had suddenly turned on my generation as we were attempting to set down our own roots in a wider, post-civil-rights America. Others felt that we were taking advantage of something we had not earned.

I read Carter’s book as a betrayal. Not only had I earned my scores and achievements, but I also felt as though I more than deserved a place at the University of Virginia, precisely because of its history: My “home” in the “academical village” was literally built by my ancestors. This centuries-long history enriched my quest to learn everything I could at a university that had once barred black Americans and women.

So as I read Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin’s new book, Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America, I felt a familiar kind of disappointment. Cashin, the child of civil rights activists and a self-described “affirmative action baby,” now frames affirmative action as a dying and failed approach to achieving racial equity.

She sees political alliances with white Americans as essential—so much so that given that most white Americans are against affirmative action, she argues that the policy must be changed. According to her, policies that consider race as a factor in college admissions have not done enough to alleviate poverty, and she insists that affirmative action has faltered because it has left white Americans outside a coalition of people concerned with improving education for the poor.

Except that she never solidly makes her case.

Relying on personal anecdotes about her life among the black upper middle class in Washington, D.C., rather than on statistics or clear definitions, Cashin says that the black middle class, not the black working class, are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action. Given the success that she sees among black middle-class kids—but citing, among others, African-American royalty like Blue Ivy Carter and the Obama girls—she insists that members of today’s black middle class no longer need access to programs that factor diversity in the admissions process. Instead Cashin calls for an end to affirmative action as we know it and argues that students of all racial backgrounds from poorer school districts should have greater access to higher education. That diversity of place, not race, should be the determining factor.

I agree with Cashin’s proposal to draw more children of the working class into the college environment. The problem is, such a program already exists: It’s called Upward Bound. Already a long-standing and successful program that draws on underserved students of all backgrounds, Upward Bound provides some of the tools and assistance that students from working-class backgrounds need to be successful in the four-year college environment. And I wish that Cashin had written an extended call to expand that program—or to create something else like it—instead of calling for an end to race-conscious affirmative action.

She might mean well, but Cashin’s Place, Not Race is really the softer side of a decadeslong assault on affirmative action policies in higher education. From the Bakke decision in the late ’70s to former University of California Regent Ward Connerly’s state-by-state campaigns of the 1990, as well as new books like Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.’s Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, the public is left thinking that affirmative action has failed to make a substantive difference other than harming white students slighted out of their admission chances. Contra Cashin, I think what this moment calls for is for all of us to remember the historical roots of affirmative action, along with the contemporary concerns that should keep us focused on protecting the policy gains of our civil rights past.

We should remember that segregation was about black success, not black failure. Laws barring African Americans from full inclusion in society were designed to remind us that we were second-class, no matter our level of achievement. Affirmative action was not about poverty; it was about access and opportunity.

It’s also important to recall that affirmative action had its roots in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which not only upended racial segregation but also laid the groundwork for African Americans and women of all races to be included as students in institutions where they had been systematically barred. Despite the wave of sentiment against affirmative action over the past four decades, the scholarship demonstrates that the inclusion of women and minority students on college campuses has made a positive impact.

The black middle class that Cashin believes no longer needs assistance is the most fragile middle-class population in the nation. 

And it’s important to remember not to take today’s gains for granted. The black middle class that Cashin believes no longer needs assistance is the most fragile middle-class population in the nation. A recent Pew study revealed that not only is social mobility difficult for the African Americans who are the working poor, but nearly half of the children raised in middle-class households in the 1960s ended up as poor adults. If black middle-class students are left out today, they could end up having less than their parents did.

So just as I believed 20 years ago that it isn’t time to end affirmative action, I still see it as a necessary remedy today. As another self-described affirmative action baby, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wrote in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” We need to build a coalition of people who recognize that the effects of generations of racial discrimination haven’t disappeared, and the best way forward should not include abandoning existing avenues to opportunity.

Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and the author of the award-winning book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Follow her on Twitter.

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Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and the author of the award-winning book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Follow her on Twitter.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.