America desperately needs a new conversation about equity and justice. A book by Sheryll Cashin suggests we use geography as an organizing principle for creating a new way forward.
Sheryll Cashin’s new book, Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America, suggests a different way to move beyond racial divisions, one based on creating opportunities in poor places that will help youth move forward into college.
The book is not directed at rural America, yet it is relevant out yonder.
A running theme details the structural geographic discrimination that hits poor people where they live, whatever their race or ethnicity, whether they are urban, rural or suburban.
Cashin’s thought-provoking work outlines barriers that stand in the way of young people attending college and challenges “universities to reform both affirmative action and the entire admissions process.”
“The hoarding of selective education is only one of strain of the unfairness that pervades America,” Cashin writes. “My aim is to begin a larger conversation about how to create a politics of fairness that will help the vast majority of Americans who will not attend Harvard, Yale, or the University of Illinois.”
Before saying more, I need to make an admission: I am a recovering racist. As a child, I grew up in the residentially segregated North of the 1950s and 1960s with subtle and not-so-subtle cues about the purported inferiority of black Americans. Racism is a sickness of the mind. Overcoming engrained stereotypes is almost a daily effort. Turned on its head, that effort is part and parcel of recognizing that hungering and thirsting for justice can trump hatred.
Clearly the nation needs a new conversation about race, as the turmoil over events like those in Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrate. But the backlash against affirmative action, difficult economic times for working families and an erosion of trust in public institutions have created an environment of fear that makes progress on racial issues even more difficult.
Cashin suggests that we frame part of this discussion around the common interests of place – rather than just race and ethnicity. It’s a good idea.
Cashin’s approach is to heal what separates us by promoting reconciliation. We need to create college admission policies that open the way for talented students by reducing barriers based on the geography of poverty that affects blacks and whites alike.
Outside of universities, reconciliation is important because the relative isolation of geographic discrimination can be used to bring together poor people across race and ethnicity to recognize their common plight and organize around common interests in their communities. Cashin shows this approach can be used at the wider level—the Texas Ten Percent Plan that increased rural enrollment in the state’s universities—or at the community level—Dallas Area Interracial—which organizes people by their various interests to work on community problems.
Could such an approach work at the national level? I hope so. Perhaps Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition is a precursor, but a more nuanced approach is needed to alleviate the class, racial, and ethnic fears and stereotypes that permeate the country and leave poor people in relative geographic isolation.
Emerging national discussions about poverty, the movement for reasoned civil discourse, and renewed discussions of racism are heartening because they help us understand some hard realities and imagine potential openings to improve our shared quality of life. Given the rigidity of geographic discrimination and the political economy in general, it may seem a dubious proposition, but national discussions still have the potential to broader nurture policies that would strengthen and support poor rural and urban communities. I hope I am wrong, but I do not expect much from Washington.
Good government, especially in our communities (including colleges and universities), is our best hope, especially when coupled with community development and educational practices that foster cooperation, social justice, and reconciliation. Good local government cannot alter grossly unfair global and national economic and political processes, but it can ameliorate local class warfare and promote better racial and ethnic relations in the community.
Reshaping and reviving the American Dream needs to occur at the local level. Local politics coupled with local sustainability and economic sufficiency in poor places can achieve vitality in the wake of abandonment by the larger political economy.
Martin Luther King, whose local civil rights actions helped trigger national civil rights legislation, understood both fear and the courage needed to make choices that lead to reconciliation. On April 4, 1967, he told an audience of 3,000 at Riverside Church in New York City:
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-centered’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered… A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood and sisterhood. We still have a chance today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
Today, some things are better. Some things are worse. Times are different from the 1960s, however. King’s dream for changing unfair culture, national politics, the economy, and geography often seems further away than ever.
Yet, King’s struggles are still our struggles, with persistent hopes of reconciliation to overcome fear. Cashin’s Place, Not Race opens an avenue to bring people together to ease injustices through discussion of common needs and taking peaceful actions in places across the country. The spirit of Dr. King is very much alive in this book’s pages.
We desperately need reconciliation, and I hope Cashin’s book will prompt discussions that will play a role in healing ourselves, our communities, and our country.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.