Sixty years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, questions persist about how to achieve equality in our public schools. Affirmative action policies have faced recent challenges — and many question whether they’ve ever been effective. Legal scholar and activist Sheryll Cashin makes a case for re-imagining affirmative action to create place-based policies that would lift up those living in poverty, regardless of their race. We consider her proposals and the long-standing issues they might address.


  • Sheryll Cashin Professor, Georgetown University Law Center; author, "Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America"


  • 13:36:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDISixty years ago this week, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision stating that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. In the landmark Brown versus Board of Education case, decades of school integration, often controversial and tumultuous in and of itself, follow yet today a spade of recent studies. And analysis has found that segregation and inequality persists in many of our public schools. This can often mean students in affected districts are less likely to have the tools necessary to pursue higher education and the lifelong advantages a degree can bring despite affirmative action policies that remain in place in a majority of states.

  • 13:37:22

    MR. KOJO NNAMDISome, including our guest today, would like to see us move away from race-based initiatives altogether and toward place-based ones as a result. Here to explain what that might look like and what it would take to accomplish that goal is Sheryll Cashin. She's a professor of law at Georgetown University and the author of several books, the most recent of which is "Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America." Sheryll Cashin, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:37:46

    MS. SHERYLL CASHINThank you for having me.

  • 13:37:48

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. Are affirmative action policies still effective or do you think they are antiquated? What, if anything, would you like to see replace them, 800-433-8850? Six decades gone from the decision that desegregated America's public schools. You know that many institutions remain segregated. How is that happening using perhaps your own high school alma mater as an example?

  • 13:38:15

    CASHINRight. I was privileged to be in high school between 1976 and 1980, the high water mark for school integration in the south in Huntsville, Ala., S. R. Butler High School. And I had the benefit of going to a well-resourced majority middle class integrated school that enabled a nerd like me to take AP classes and get access to selective higher education. I went to Vanderbilt. My parents were broke activists. You know, we couldn't afford a fancy private school and we didn't live in a fancy neighborhood. And I got to go to a school that worked for me and for kids from the projects and for affluent kids.

  • 13:39:00

    CASHINAnd that same high school today is overwhelmingly black, overwhelmingly poor, under-resourced and a source of derision, you know, that people distance themselves from it. It sued to have a sense of prestige about it. And that individual story's happened over and over again, not just in the south but in a lot of places because the Supreme Court has basically signaled that it's okay to retreat from school integration.

  • 13:39:35

    NNAMDINot long after the Brown decision, President Lyndon Johnson laid out the case for affirmative action. What were the early goals of the principle and how was it received at that time, that speech he made at Howard University's commencement?

  • 13:39:47

    CASHINWell, he -- I can't remember the famous iconic words but he had this metaphor about leveling the playing field. And at that time in 1965, it very much was the case that if you were black you were highly likely to be disadvantaged. But meanwhile, I'm arguing in my book, that place increasingly is fairly definitive in terms of what opportunity you have access to.

  • 13:40:36

    CASHINOnly 42 percent of Americans in U.S. society today live in a middle class neighborhood. And that's down from 65 percent in 1970. And the figures are much worse for black and Latino children. And why is that? Because over the last three decades, increasingly affluent people and highly educated people are segregating into their own neighborhoods. And if you -- everybody knows where the gold standard neighborhoods are, right? And If you can guy your way into those neighborhoods, you and your children automatically have access to highly selective K through 12 education that sets you up well to go into selective higher education.

  • 13:41:20

    CASHINBut anybody outside of those neighborhoods and networks has a very, very different deal. And you can be the valedictorian of Ballou High School in Washington D.C. and there are certain elite institutions that won't even look at you. And so that's why I'm arguing for place to be a strong consideration in admissions processes.

  • 13:41:42

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Sheryll Cashin. She's a professor of law at Georgetown University and the author of several books, the most recent of which is what we're discussing now. It's called "Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America." Give us a call if you're interested in joining the conversation, 800-433-8850. You know, we've talked with Diversity Consultant Howard Ross on this broadcast about unconscious bias. And you write a bit -- quite a bit about the perception gap that is a big stumbling block in addressing questions of fairness.

  • 13:42:11

    NNAMDII couldn't help thinking that, here we are talking about President Johnson in 1965 speaking at the Howard University Commencement, and one of the things that drives this perception gap is P. Diddy speaking at the Howard University Commencement in the year 2014. Because the perception of America now is that African Americans are no longer necessarily this disadvantaged group because, well, look at P. Diddy.

  • 13:42:39

    CASHINAnd Oprah.

  • 13:42:40

    NNAMDIAnd Oprah.

  • 13:42:41

    CASHINAnd President Obama. And, you know, people may not know African Americans who are that successful, they may not live next door to them, but they certainly see examples of exemplary African American success in American society. And, yes, Kojo, I write about this. This is the real politic around Affirmative Action that progressives who care about the policy have to contend with. The majority of whites in this country don't support racial preferences in higher education. And they feel, a lot of them feel that gains of the Civil Rights Movement came at their expense.

  • 13:43:18

    CASHINAnd that's what I've talked about, the perception gap. Actually, a majority of whites in opinion polls say that discrimination against whites is a bigger problem than discrimination against blacks. Now, you know, that may not be objectively true. But there is rising resentment, particularly on the part of struggling whites in the society and there are lots of politicians and radio talk show hosts, present company excepted that stoke that -- stoke that resentment.

  • 13:43:48

    CASHINAnd that is not going away. And so this is -- Affirmative Action is under attack. It's going to continue to be. And I'm arguing that progressives who care about this really need to be about -- I prefer pursing policies that encourage rather than discourage cross-racial alliances.

  • 13:44:12

    NNAMDIBecause in the final analysis, Affirmative Action is supposed to help people who are, quote, unquote, "disadvantaged." And you say that in today's environment, place is a much fairer arbiter of who is disadvantaged and who is not, than race. Why?

  • 13:44:29

    CASHINLike I said -- well, if you look at where -- how Affirmative Action is practiced in elite, higher education -- and frankly, that's where it most matters. In non-selective institutions, you have diversity without Affirmative Action. And it is possible in elite institutions to see what I call optical diversity -- different skin colors. But often there's not that much diversity in terms of background. And frankly, and I may get in trouble saying this to you, with your lovely accent...

  • 13:45:02

    NNAMDINo, the children of immigrants. You're right.

  • 13:45:04

    CASHINFrankly, yes.

  • 13:45:06

    NNAMDIPeople don't travel 3,000 miles to fail.

  • 13:45:07

    CASHINRight. Right. This is the real irony with this policy. You have civil rights advocates expending energy for a policy that redounds heavily to the benefit of advantaged black people who don't live the current reality of segregation, nor do they descend from Jim Crow or from slavery in this country. And so I think -- and meanwhile there are studies from states that have had to pursue diversity with Affirmative Action ban -- about eight states -- that show that when you innovate, there are race neutral means for getting very, very close to the racial diversity that they had using racial preferences in a way that encourages a sense that everybody has a fair shot.

  • 13:45:55

    NNAMDIAnd you mention in the book that the African immigrants who come to this country have a high school education that is superior to just about anyone else in this country, including some other immigrants.

  • 13:46:09

    CASHINWell, you know, here another irony. African immigrants, on average, the parents of African immigrants who are applying to college, on average, have higher education than all racial groups -- American groups, white, black, Latino, Asian. And they are disproportionately represented in elite higher education. And I'm not hating on or, you know, I love my African and West Indian brothers and sisters. But in opinion polls, when you ask people about racial preferences versus giving a kid a leg up because they come from a disadvantaged setting, the latter strategy garners a lot more public support.

  • 13:47:01

    NNAMDIThere are people who will say, well, give me examples of what you're talking about. Some would say the world just isn't fair. And trying to make it so is a Sisyphean feat. But what kinds of policies are already in place or you would like to see put in place to help achieve the goal?

  • 13:47:16

    CASHINOkay. A couple things. First, I think higher education needs to blow up and redo the admissions process and scrub it of all practices that reinforce advantage. Standardized tests should be optional. Financial aid should return to being based on need, not so-called merit. There should be a lot more outreach to overlooked places to widen the pipeline. Universities that work with organizations like the Posse Organization or QuestBridge, there are organizations that do a very good job of finding the high-achieving kids in disadvantaged places that are capable of doing the work.

  • 13:47:59

    CASHINThose kids are there. It's not true that they're not there. I also think that legacy preferences should be scrapped. And racial preferences should be replaced with an emphasis on place. If you come from a neighborhood or a school where more than 20 percent of the kids are in poverty, by definition, you're coming from a place that has fewer resources, often fewer talented teachers, than kids from highly advantaged settings. And all of this comes out of research from states that have had to operate with racial bans and schools that have been fairly successful in getting diversity.

  • 13:48:43

    NNAMDIYou talked about the system that exists in Texas...

  • 13:48:45

    CASHINMm-hmm. Mm-hmm, Mm-hmm.

  • 13:48:46

    NNAMDI...for getting into college. Ten percent, whatever school you happen to be going to, if you're in the top 10 percent of graduates, you're in.

  • 13:48:51

    CASHINRight. This is the Top 10 Percent Plan, which -- yeah, you're top 10 percent of your high school, you're guaranteed access to someplace in the UT System. And I like that strategy. It's not the only thing I would do. But I like it because it has opened up opportunity to kids from rural white districts, from inner-city districts, from, you know, impoverished districts, that were not sending their kids to the flagship universities. And it also has the benefit of having created a very strong, permanent, multiracial coalition that includes some quite conservative Republicans in support of a policy that has broadened access to a wonderful institution that taxpayers pay for.

  • 13:49:45

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Lisa, who says, "It seems like, so often, when people try to move race out of Affirmative Action or out of anything, it's an attempt to pretend that racism and structural racism don't exist anymore. They do. And it goes on and on and continues. Not addressing it or trying to make it class based or place based, undermines helping young people who are still systematically discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Even if you are well off and black, you still face discrimination wherever you go, whatever you live." I guess, you would say, try to convince the body politic about that.

  • 13:50:21

    CASHINWell, I'm not saying that race doesn't matter. It continue to be very, very salient. But when you look at so many of the things that are going on in American society that truly disadvantage black and brown kids, if you can't build a multiracial alliance that gets you to at least 55 percent in any policymaking body, you're not going to be able to redress that. And my kids are going to be okay. I mean my kids, frankly -- I've written a book that is against their interests. They -- if people follow my advice, they won't get a race preference in high school -- in college, nor will they get a legacy preference.

  • 13:51:02

    CASHINBut they're going to be okay. There are a lot of black and Latino kids in separate, unequal schools that are not okay. And I'm advocating for the strivers from those settings who need and deserve a leg up.

  • 13:51:17

    NNAMDIHere's Lisa in McLean, Va. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:51:21

    LISAHi. I wonder what you would think about -- part of me feels like by the time we get to graduating from high school where these Affirmative Action policies are taking place in college and jobs, it's almost too late. That where the resources need to go are to these places you're talking about at such an earlier age -- at preschool, elementary school. And that -- I mean the example you were talking about, as a Ballou graduate, is that graduate prepared like his peers in more advantaged places are? And I just wanted your comments on that.

  • 13:51:55

    CASHINYes, a question I get a lot. I recommend in the book that elite institutions work with organizations like QuestBridge and Posse, which are very, very good at screening for and finding kids who can do the work. The Posse Foundation is more selective than Harvard University. They accept only 4.5 percent of all of their applicants to receive a Posse scholarship. And the average SAT for a Posse scholar is something like 1,100, which, you know, a lot of people who are familiar with elite higher education, don't think that's such a great score.

  • 13:52:37

    CASHINBut what they screen for, if you look at studies that predict success, the number one predictor of a kid's success in college is their cumulative high school GPA. And their second predictor is their willingness to do the work, this grit, this stick-to-itiveness. SAT scores are nowhere in the picture.

  • 13:52:57

    NNAMDIYou know, when I read this book, it occurred to me for the first time, I hadn't thought of it, that being educated in the Caribbean and what was then a British system, I never took a standardized test before I was 16 years old.

  • 13:53:07

    CASHINRight. And most of our international competitors don't subject students to this. And so I'm arguing for universities focusing admissions processes on the factors that truly predicts success. And I can't speak for this year's valedictorian of Ballou, right? But I know that there are kids out there, like myself, who had a fair to middling SAT score, but was the valedictorian of my high school class and would get up at 4:00 in the morning and would do the work.

  • 13:53:41

    NNAMDIOn to Ross in Washington D.C. Ross, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:46

    ROSSHey, yeah. Thank you very much. Just a comment that, you seem very enamored with the private sector helping out students. You put a plug in there for your -- somebody who's probably employing you. And that just does not feel right.

  • 13:54:12

    NNAMDII'm not sure what you're referring to. Could you be more specific? Hello? Ross is no longer...

  • 13:54:21

    CASHINWell, I mentioned the Posse Foundation. But I'm not employed by them. I'm employed by Georgetown Law. I just respect their work and QuestBridge's work because the point is, there are strivers out there. But -- and I say this in the book -- universities are typically, when they're outreach, they're going to the well-traveled path to these, you know, the markets where highly educated people are concentrated. But there are strivers who are capable of doing the work everywhere. So they need to find different ways of finding kids from overlooked places.

  • 13:54:58

    NNAMDIHere's Chris in Gaithersburg, Md. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:03

    CHRISThanks, Kojo. My question on this subject in general -- and it is a question, not just a soapbox kind of thing -- if you make a policy that adjusts for someone who is currently disadvantaged, and of course defining that's really important -- but if you make a policy that you say, for someone who's disadvantaged, whether, as your guest is saying, they grew up in an environment where they're -- weren't advantaged, et cetera, then -- and that person now gets that edge up, there are a finite number of seats in all of these elite institutions.

  • 13:55:35

    CHRISYou are now taking someone out of one of those seats who doesn't meet that criteria. But now let me make it really color specific. You have an Asian kid who is not a genius in math, who is an average student in math, who would have gotten into, whatever, the University of Berkeley, or whatever, and you changed the policy for someone of a different color because of whatever reason. That person didn't get in. And there's no advocate for that person. There's no advocate for the average Asian kid in math. And I just find that all of these policies, the problem is incredibly difficult.

  • 13:56:11

    CHRISI went to the Naval Academy and I saw what they did with racial profiling there. And I saw what happened with the students who left because they couldn't pass. And I'll stop here for just a second.

  • 13:56:20

    NNAMDIWhat do you say to that, Sheryll Cashin?

  • 13:56:22

    CASHINWell, as I say in chapter four, I feature Amherst University, which almost a quarter of the freshmen in Amherst University are low-income kids who come from a low-income family. And they do things very differently than a lot of their competitors. And when -- and I want to make it clear. I'm not saying that kids who aren't exceptional high achievers should be admitted to anybody's university. What I'm saying is, there are kids who are exceptional high achievers who can compete and should have a fighting chance, regardless of their color, right?

  • 13:57:08

    CASHINI'm -- and I'm -- unless and until this country wants to provide universal, high-quality K through 12 education, I personally believe that universities have an ethical obligation to mitigate some of these savage inequalities. And, yes, give special consideration to kids who are coming from very disadvantaged settings.

  • 13:57:34

    NNAMDISheryll Cashin will be reading from her book of politics and prose. That's located at 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, this coming Sunday, that's May 18, at 5:00 p.m. That event is free, open to the public. You can continue this conversation with her there, because right now we're out of time. Sheryll Cashin is a professor of law at Georgetown University. Her most recent book is called, "Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America." Sheryll Cashin, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:02

    CASHINThank you for having me.

  • 13:58:03

    NNAMDIAnd thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Coming up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," fighting crime with social media. Police are now tapping Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to ID suspects and aid investigations. Tech Tuesday explores new tactics and new privacy concerns. Then at 1:00, D.C.'s jazz history. Music clubs along U Street were the heart of a black Washington for decades and some of D.C.'s first integrated social spaces. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Noon till 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at

Most Recent Shows