In U.S. schools, we’re all minorities now

/ 18 September 2014 / Shawna
Dane Smith, St. Paul Leagal Ledger Capitol Report, Sept. 17, 2014

This fall, for the first time in the history of the United States, just under 50 percent of the students in U.S. public schools were white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And although the white proportion of the U.S. population is not projected to fall below half until 2043, the public school picture is quickly beginning to reflect both continued immigration and the fact that non-white births began to exceed white births in 2011.

In Minnesota, these trends lag the nation by a bit, although our rate of growth for communities of color actually is higher than for many other states and we’re catching up fast. While less than 3 percent of Minnesotans over the age of 80 are people of color, that figure rises to 30 percent for those under the age of five. In some suburban and rural school districts, students of color are pushing past 25 percent of enrollments.

Losing majority status, and the dominance and unfair privilege that came with it, can be frightening for some, and this fear has been shamelessly exploited by too many politicians. Volumes have been written about how race enmity and white backlash have pervaded our society and public policy over the last 50 years, since the Civil Rights Act and the other great equity movements of the 1960s.

Much less has been written about how the nation, and particularly the South and the Sun Belt with its millions of new Latinos, has benefited broadly from rising educational attainment among persons of color and the greater realization of all that human potential.

That’s where Minnesotans of goodwill and good conscience, of all races and ethnicities, need to focus. The opportunity gaps in education — too often described as an achievement gap — represent tremendous untapped economic potential that will benefit every Minnesotan in the long run.

According to the recent Greater MSP plan produced by the Metropolitan Council, Minnesota’s racial inequities cost the state billions in lost economic output every year. Minnesota’s gross domestic product would have been $16.4 billion higher in 2011 if there had been no racial gaps in income. And this equality deficit will grow: A conservative estimate places the toll at $18.3 billion in 2015.

Looking further out, if everyone in the Twin Cities in 2040 enjoyed the same socioeconomic profile as white people do today, we would have:

  • 171,000 more people with a high school diploma.
  • 124,000 more people with jobs.
  • 274,000 fewer people in poverty.
  • An additional $31.8 billion in income.
  • 186,000 more homeowners.

Meanwhile, a couple of overlooked positive trends — a slow but steady decline in overtly racist attitudes and continued faith in public schools, particularly in the Twin Cities area — suggest that more and better public investment in opportunity gap-closing will enjoy public support.

In the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and other high-profile cases of race-related violence, one might be tempted to believe that racial stereotypes and resentment haven’t improved at all in the 50 years since segregation and discrimination became illegal.

In fact, a recent backgrounder piece for journalists by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy contained line graphs that show a slow but steady long-term decline in racist attitudes, such as opposition to interracial marriage and support for segregated neighborhoods and schools. The Shorenstein report shows a trend line since 1990 that is bending in the right direction among whites on two key questions: whether whites believe they are more intelligent and more hard-working than African-Americans.

Studies elsewhere show stubborn residual resentments and racism among too many whites, and there are wide gaps between whites and communities of color on whether enough progress toward equal opportunity has been achieved. The bottom line might be that both hope and impatience are justified.

Meanwhile, a truly refreshing piece of polling data emerged recently that suggests strong and improved support for Minnesota public schools, where all this racial diversity is happening first.

MinnPost education writer Beth Hawkins reported recently on a survey by the Morris Leatherman Co. that found a whopping two-thirds of Minnesotans today describe their schools as “good,” compared with 45 percent in 1974.

The trends appear to be resulting in a subtle decline in the usage of the very term “minority.” A National Public Radio article in 2011 noted that as non-Hispanic whites have fallen below 50 percent of the population in the country’s two most populous states (California and Texas), and as interracial marriage is increasing, the term “minority” is becoming problematic. NPR’s vice president of diversity, Keith Woods, wrote as far back as 2002 that “minority” is part of a media language “mired in euphemisms and the tortured, convoluted syntax that betray America’s pathological avoidance of straight talk about race relations.”

Whether and when which of us become minorities or pluralities is less important than a commitment to make this diversity work and to build equity and assets for everybody in the community. Amitai Etzioni, a prominent Israeli-American sociologist, best known for his work on communitarianism and civic engagement, put it this way 14 years ago, in a prophetic piece titled “A Nation of Minorities”:

“Most Americans still share a strong sense that while we are different in some ways, in more ways we are joined by the shared responsibilities of providing a good society for our children and ourselves — one free of racial and ethnic strife — and providing the world with a model of a country whose economy and polity are thriving. Indeed, we came in different ships but now ride in the same boat.” 

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