Proponents Of Affirmative Action Losing The Battle?

The Supreme Court upheld Michigan's ban on using race as a factor in public university admissions. Tell Me More looks at the internal debate within the affirmative action movement.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I am Michel Martin. We're going to spend some time today talking about some pressing issues in education - issues that some might find surprisingly emotional and intense.

Later, education correspondent Claudio Sanchez is going to tell us about the new push to get children into high-quality pre-K programs around the country. He went to Tulsa, Ok. to look at theirs. We hear about a flap involving the first lady's planned visit to a high school commencement in Kansas. We'll hear why some parents aren't that excited about the visit, and it has nothing to do with politics.

But we start the program focusing on a major ruling from the Supreme Court on affirmative action. As you've probably heard, the Supreme Court yesterday upheld the state of Michigan's ban on using race as a factor in public university admissions. That ban was approved by Michigan voters in 2006. But it might surprise you to know there's been plenty of debate within the affirmative-action movement as well about whether these tactics are still worth fighting for and whether affirmative action even works.

We wanted to focus a bit more on that conversation, so we're joined now by a professor, Sheryll Cashin. She's a law professor at Georgetown Law and author of the forthcoming book "Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America." She's here with me in Washington, D.C. Welcome. Thank you for coming.

SHERYLL CASHIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Steve Shapiro. He is the national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union - the ACLU - and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Mr. Shapiro, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us, as well.

STEVE SHAPIRO: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start by asking you - Mr. Shapiro, I'll start with you. I described this as a major ruling, but is it really? I mean, the majority says that they are not - they didn't even consider the permissibility of race-conscious admissions policies under the Constitution, but whether and in what manner voters can choose to prohibit the consideration of race. So they say the basic underlying issue wasn't even addressed. So do you think this is a major issue, a major ruling?

SHAPIRO: I think it's a major ruling, but I think it's an important caveat. And people need to understand that just today's decision did not call in to question the constitutionality of affirmative action. States that want to pursue affirmative action programs are - remain free to do so. States that have adopted affirmative action programs can keep them in place.

That said, think - in the state of Michigan, yesterday's decision is going to have a major and unfortunate impact. It is now more difficult for university officials in Michigan to pursue and achieve racial diversity in their student body than it is for them to decide that they want more football players on campus or they want to change the rules for children of alumni or children of major donors, even though the educational officials who were charged with running the university have concluded - as I think most education officials have concluded around the country - that a racially diverse student body benefits all students.

And I think the consequence of yesterday's decision is going to be sadly predictable. We're going to see what - a repeat of what happened between 2006 and 2012 when this ban was in place. And that is a substantial decline in the number of minority students at Michigan's public universities.

MARTIN: Professor Cashin, what about you?

CASHIN: Well, I do think it's significant in the sense that it has - it will encourage affirmative action to further be debated in the political space. And in polls, large majorities of people oppose use of race in higher education admissions.

In fact, African-Americans are the only group that solidly supports it. And so this is really easy politics, particularly in red states. And so I predict that, you know, particularly around 2016, you may see some more of these ballot initiatives opposing it.

MARTIN: So - so talk to me, though, about your point of view on this. I mean, part of the thing that you discuss in your forthcoming book, which will be out next month, is that because there's so much backlash and negative reaction to even the use of the term affirmative action, you say it's time to revisit this policy. How do you think this should be thought about now?

CASHIN: Well, I come from this from a pro-diversity standpoint. The good news is that even though there's a lot - there's a lot of opposition to race-based affirmative action, there's broad support for diversity. And my argument is that, ironically, focusing on race in admissions, I think, detracts from the more important work of building strong multiracial coalitions that can attack the underlying systemic forces that exclude disadvantaged kids of all colors from opportunity in - both in K-12 education and in higher education.

MARTIN: So why is "Place, Not Race" the way to do that, in your opinion?

CASHIN: Well, because place increasingly is the vehicle for where opportunity is distributed on the ground in this country. And everybody in America who just lives here knows that.

Today, only 42 percent of all Americans live in middle-class neighborhoods. That's down from 65 percent in 1970. And what we increasingly have - and mainly that's because of the increasing isolation of highly educated affluent people from everybody else.

I mean, you and I were talking about that in the break. We're privileged black folks, right? We're privileged to live in neighborhoods where there's a high concentration of highly educated two-parent families. And just living in neighborhoods like that, you tend to rise, and you tend to have access to highly selective K-12 education that sets you up well for college.

MARTIN: But it's also true - the data also shows - and, Steve Shapiro, I certainly want to hear from you on this - and so, Sheryll Cashin, maybe if I could hold that thought with you - but the data also shows that black parents, unlike other parents of other races, have a harder time passing on their privilege. They have a harder time - middle-class black parents have a harder time ensuring that their children will be middle-class. I mean, the fact that African-Americans - we've seen over the last decades - have actually seen an erosion of privilege.

So let's maybe - let's see if - Shapiro, answer that question. Is it time to kind of revisit the way we think about affirmative action given the politics of the moment? What do you - what do you make of Sheryll Cashin's proposal that perhaps place, not race, would be the way to think about diversity?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think I agree with all of the factual premises, which is that we have a very serious problem in this country with increasing re-segregation, both along class and race lines. I just don't think it's an either-or proposition. I think it's a both-and proposition.

We have to address the issues that Sheryll has identified, but that it's also very important to increase the opportunities for minority students in higher education in the United States. And when the Supreme Court last took up the question of the constitutionality of affirmative action in 2003 - also, ironically, from Michigan - there were a whole slew of briefs submitted by Fortune 500 companies, by military officials testifying to the importance of having a diverse body of educated college graduates that can enter the workforce and positions of leadership in the United States. And I do think that a properly constructed racial affirmative action program has proven to be among the most effective, if not the most effective, manner of increasing the number of minority students in the country.

And I fully appreciate what the poll numbers say, but I am not convinced that this issue is going to have the political resonance that it had a decade or more ago. And even Ward Connerly, who has promoted many of these ballot initiatives, seems to have lost a little appetite for the fight. So I think it remains to be seen whether and how many other states are going to follow Michigan's lead here.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about the Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action taken yesterday. But we're talking today about whether and if so how it's time to change the conversation around affirmative action.

I am joined by Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin - author of the forthcoming book called "Place, Not Race" where she argues for a new vision of opportunity in America and how these conversations should ensue - and Steve Shapiro, national legal director for the ACLU. That's who was speaking just now. Professor Cashin, pick up the thread here. I mean, just as Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the minority, made a very pointed case for the persistent importance of race.

CASHIN: Right. And I'm not saying race doesn't continue to be salient. I'm just dealing with the real politic of that. Affirmative action is declining. Only about a third of public universities still use the policy and less than half of private universities do. So progressives who care, I think, need to start focusing on alternatives. And let me talk about some of them.

I - there are studies that show that when universities redo their admissions process and give special consideration to the multiple complicated factors that tend to exclude or create obstacles, particularly for African-American children - not just income, but parental education, the demographics of the neighborhood they grew up in, the demographics of the school - and also create a holistic admissions process that really focuses on those factors that truly predict success, and that is cumulative high school GPA, not standardized tests. And it is grit - stick-to-it-ness. And you can screen for that.

That there - these studies show that schools who do this have been able to get numbers very, very close to what they get with race. I also say, make standardized tests optional. Make financial aid based on need and not merit. Scrub - scrap legacy preferences. Scrub the admissions processes of the things that currently reinforce advantage.

MARTIN: Steve Shapiro, do you want to respond to that?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think - I agree that those of us who support enhanced diversity in education across the board and certainly in higher education need to be thinking of alternatives. I am not optimistic - if we're going to be talking about the real world - that universities are soon going to scrap legacy preferences.

And I do think there continues to be a place for properly constructed affirmative action programs. And I sincerely hope that the universities that have adopted those programs are not now going to abandon them because I do think that we have seen the consequences. And it may be possible to construct a very sophisticated metric that - as Professor Cashin says - both enhances minority enrollment and is a predictor of success.

But one thing that is not an adequate proxy and that many people have proposed is simply substituting class for race. We ought to have more class diversity in our higher education system as well, but it's not the same as race.

MARTIN: Well, we have to leave it there for now. It's a rich conversation. And, Sheryll Cashin, I anticipate that there will be more conversation sparked by your book. That was Steve Shapiro, national legal director for the ACLU. Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin was also with us. Her forthcoming book is called "Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America" where she discusses these important issues. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CASHIN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Thank you very much.

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