Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Affirmative Inaction

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

American race relations rests at a crossroads. While white Americans believe we’ve expunged our Jim Crow legacy, African Americans still recognize opportunities lost to wildly unequal resource allocation. At the heart of this disjunction lies Affirmative Action, Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to proactively redress historical injustice. In today’s putatively post-racial society, with an African American President, do such programs still serve, or hinder, their targeted clients?

Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin manages to straddle both sides of this important debate. Dispassionately scrutinizing the numbers, clearly black Americans bear multi-generational disadvantages that they cannot simply muscle through. Cashin’s analysis resembles a much briefer synopsis of Ian Haney López. But race-based scrutiny overlooks that poor whites face categorically different circumstances than the rich; Cashin writes, “Working-class whites are rarely disaggregated in these debates.”

Cashin sees the linking factor not as race, but poverty. As an educator herself, Cashin focuses on access to postsecondary schooling, which has distinct economic implications. Poor people, even what Cashin calls “low-income strivers,” have systemic barriers to education access (her lengthy demonstration defies abridgement). Lack of educational access has consequences which unspool throughout a citizen’s life. Therefore, Cashin says, poverty trumps race as a situation needing redress.

I’ll buy that. But Cashin’s solution is to focus efforts on geographically localized poverty. Public policy, like zoning regulations and the end of forced busing in the 1990s, have moved America’s poor into close physical proximity. This has racial overtones, admittedly: middle-class neighborhoods are more predominantly white and Asian, while poor neighborhoods are more black and Hispanic. While racial segregation is forbidden today, economic segregation is both legal and widespread.

Thus Cashin’s title: we should solve inequality based on place, not race. Because certain geographic regions have superior access to pre-college tutoring and career planning; because seventy-five percent of students entering America’s most prestigious universities graduated from less than one thousand high schools; because America’s college graduates now live in deep concentration, mentoring rising youth based on proximity, we must privilege geography in dispensing redress. How could anyone possibly disagree?

Easily. Cashin’s solution assumes economic segregation has remained largely constant, and will continue doing so for the foreseeable future. Sadly, reading Cashin’s well-reasoned argument, I cannot forget what I’ve learned from other authors. Jeff Speck and Brown et al. muster statistics that America’s demography is currently reversing after the 2007 housing bubble collapse. We’re living through the reversal of “White Flight,” and American poverty will soon look very, very different.

From the Great Depression until about the year 2000, those who could afford it abandoned America’s cities, creating new, largely black and Hispanic classes called “the urban poor.” But highly educated, economically mobile young Millennials now want to live within walking distance of work, commerce, and recreation, meaning they’re moving back into cities. Rich, mostly white investors have bought and renovated urban neighborhoods, pricing the poor out of their homes.

In our lifetime, we’re witnessing the biggest reorientation of money and geography since World War II. As dense urban housing becomes high-demand and prices soar, suburban housing values stagnate, even decline in certain regions. Cashin briefly addresses suburban poverty, but doesn’t linger on possibly the biggest counterargument: old neighborhoods, poor but blessed with strong social ties, are scattering outward as suburban rentals become the only housing “urban poor” can afford.

Linking poverty rectification to place assumes that money and geography have a stable relationship. Until recently, that was true, but the post-war cultural conditions that encouraged Levittown-style suburban development have reversed since the millennium, and accelerated since 2007. Geographically based programs would now either become quickly outmoded by events, or require costly new layers of bureaucracy to keep abreast of changing conditions. For obvious reasons, neither option is desirable.

Cashin makes a persuasive case that what we’re doing now no longer rectifies the problem that precipitated it. She musters copious evidence that we must recalibrate our attempts to squelch generational poverty. What we’re doing now, Cashin insists, had brief benefits, but currently only stirs the pot, keeping “low-income strivers” always one school district, one campus visit, or one need-based scholarship away from achieving the life their efforts merit.

Informed readers will have difficulty disagreeing with Cashin’s enlightening set-up. She exposes how, post-Johnson, America’s systemic problem has shifted off race, at least directly, and onto economics. But her suggestions for redress make the common mistake, creating a prior system we can plug into unique situations. She’s trying to solve a statistical problem, not a lived one, and statistics tend to squirm around inconveniently.

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