Place, Not Race: Affirmative Action and the Geography of Educational Opportunity

Ultimately, I argue that one important response to the demise of race-based affirmative action should be to incorporate the experience of segregation into diversity strategies. A college applicant who has thrived despite exposure to poverty in his school or neighborhood deserves special consideration. Those blessed to come of age in poverty-free havens do not. I conclude that use of place, rather than race, in diversity programming will better approximate the structural disadvantages many children of color actually endure, while enhancing the possibility that we might one day move past the racial resentment that affirmative action engenders. While I propose substituting place for race in university admissions, I am not suggesting that American society has become post-racial. In fact, much social science research supports the continued salience of race, especially in the subconscious of most Americans. My proposal accounts for the racial architecture of opportunity in this country through the race-neutral means of place. Ultimately, I conclude that the social costs of racial preferences outweigh any marginal benefits when race-neutral alternatives are available that will create racial diversity by expanding opportunity to those most disadvantaged by structural barriers. The truly disadvantaged— black and brown children trapped in high-poverty environs—are not getting the quality of schooling they need, partially because backlash wedge politics undermine any possibility for common sense public policies.6 Affirmative action as currently practiced in admissions at most elite institutions does little to help this group and may make matters worse by contributing to political gridlock borne of racial cleavage. I would not make place the only dimension for consideration of affirmative action, but I do think that, given how large it looms in structuring educational opportunity and outcomes, it should be given much greater weight and attention than it currently receives in diversity programs. I would also give considerable weight to another factor that disproportionately affects blacks and Latinos: low family wealth. Finally, I call on universities to radically reform admissions processes and jettison concepts of “merit” that are unrelated to their professed missions.