What Should Replace Race-Based Affirmative Action?

The Supreme Court and the court of public opinion are both shifting against race-based affirmative action in college admissions.


University of Texas at Austin
Allison Fang / Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court and the court of public opinion are both shifting against race-based affirmative action in college admissions. But that doesn't mean acceptance to a university will be based purely on merit any time soon.

In a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed, Georgetown University Law Professor Sheryll Cashin—author of the new book, Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in Americaargued that geographic considerations should replace racial ones:

Q: Could the places designated for affirmative action include those where the disadvantaged people are white? Could a college, for example, specify rural poor people (of any race) who live in low-income areas as people on whom to focus?

A: Absolutely, assuming the college does not focus only on the rural poor. There are deserving strivers in cities and struggling suburbs, too. A high-achieving student from a low-opportunity place (e.g., where more than 20 percent of their peers are poor) is deserving of special consideration, regardless of his or her skin color. No one deserves affirmative action simply because they have dark skin or because her parent is an alumnus of her dream school. In addition to helping high-achieving students who are actually disadvantaged, place-based affirmative action has the benefit of encouraging rather than discouraging cross-racial alliances among the majority of Americans who are locked out of resource-rich environs. 

Q: You note the backlash (legal and political) against affirmative action in its current forms. Do you think place as opposed to race would attract more support?

A: Yes, I do. In chapter five of the book, entitled "Reconciliation," I cite the example of the Texas 10 Percent Plan and the coalition of strange bedfellows that supports it. The plan guarantees admission to a public college to graduating seniors in the top 10 percent of every high school in the state. It was enacted by the Texas Legislature, after a temporary court ban on race-based affirmative action, with the support of blacks, Latinos and a lone rural Republican who realized that his constituents were not gaining entrance to the University of Texas. The law ended the dominance of a small number of wealthy high schools in UT admissions and it changed the college-going behavior of high achievers in remote places that had never bothered to apply to UT Austin. Of course, parents in wealthy school attendance zones have repeatedly attacked the plan as unfair, but in the Texas House of Representatives, white Republicans from rural districts, blacks and Latinos strongly support the plan and have insulated it from repeal. The end result is a successful public policy that enhances opportunity across the state and a more cohesive politics—at least on the issue of access to higher education. Percentage plans are not the only solution but this illustrates the type of transformative policies and politics that diversity advocates could achieve with fresh thinking.

Admissions systems based on "place, not race" are increasingly popular among people who want to promote diverse campuses in race-neutral ways. Expect geography-based affirmative action to become the default as state legislatures and courts continue to recognize mounting public opposition to racial preferences.

And though supporters of individual liberty should be glad to see the demise of race-based affirmative action, they should also demand that more be done to combat the widespread and unconscionable practice of  birthright-based affirmative action and influence-based affirmative action.