Race and Beyond: Majority Minority Toddlers

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Cold, hard facts are unassailable, but often are disregarded. Such ignorance comes with looming peril. Here’s a pair of textbook examples.

Fact one: The U.S. Census Bureau reported last month in its annual data dump on children and school enrollment that 49.9 percent of all three-year-olds in the nation during 2009 were white. This finding represents the first time since the bureau has released these figures that the majority of this age group was made up, collectively, of children of color. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution deemed the statistics evidence of a “tipping point” that “finally confirm[s] the beginning of an oft-predicted trend—a truly multiethnic minority school age population that will continue to pour into our grade schools, high schools, and beyond in the coming decade.”

Fact two: Also last month, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that since 2008 34 states and the District of Columbia have cut spending on Kindergarten-through-12-grade education, and 43 states have cut funding for higher education. “States made these cuts because revenues from income taxes, sales taxes, and other revenue sources used to pay for these services declined due to the recession,” the center’s Nicholas Johnson, Phil Oliff, and Erica Williams wrote in a paper accompanying the release of the report.

The most sanguine analysis of these seemingly disjointed facts would be that there’s no causal relationship between the two; one neither created nor exacerbated the other. Well, maybe, but let’s set that aside to examine another day. Today we as a nation need to confront the fact that regardless of how this came to be, our nation’s future primary school kids will be majority minority, yet funding for their future education is falling. This presents us with challenges and opportunities that bear down on the nation’s future cohesion and prosperity.

In strictly political terms, the changing demographics may be a boon to progressives and a death knell to conservatives. My colleague Ruy Teixeira argues persuasively that shifts in demography, geography, and attitudes heralds a realignment of political ideology. “All this adds up to big change that is reshaping our country in a fundamentally progressive direction,” Teixeira wrote two years ago.

More recently, in an op-ed published last week in The Washington Post, columnist Harold Meyerson observed the demographic changes sweeping our country pose an "existential problem" for the Republican Party. “As America becomes increasingly multiracial, the Republicans have elected to become increasingly white,” Myerson wrote. “The GOP’s response to this epochal demographic change has been to do everything in its power to keep America (particularly its electorate) as white as can be.”

That’s impossible. The changing complexion of our nation is yet another one of those undeniable facts. But how we deal with that fact is far from settled. Whether we embrace these changes or resist them will shape how future generations react in turn.

Indeed, conservatives are the ones most adamant about making draconian cuts affecting schools, teachers, and children, which sends a hostile message to an entire generation of future voters and taxpayers. Young, multicultural Americans witness conservative demands for sharp budget cuts in education, health, and other domestic programs as personal attacks. Whether that’s fair or accurate, it’s a perception that conservative leaders and radio talk show entertainers seem unable or unwilling to dispel. Actually, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, argues it’s a part of conservative leaders’ strategic political plan to pit black and Latino Americans against each other. What may appear to be winning politics to harvest short-term votes from an older, largely white electorate is, in reality, a down payment on long-term hostility among the growing population of young, nonwhite Americans.

William Frey at the Brookings Institution calls this a "cultural generation gap," a phenomenon easily observed in Arizona, where the state’s Latino population has grown by 180 percent over the past two decades. Meanwhile, the Grand Canyon State’s racial composition has shifted from 72 percent to 58 percent white. Predictably, the state has become the dubious poster child for white backlash against the browning of America.

Or, as Frey writes, “It is the fact that the state’s swift Hispanic growth has been concentrated in young adults and children, creating a ‘cultural generation gap’ with largely white baby boomers and older populations, the same demographic that predominates the recent Tea Party protests.” It’s also the same group that gives rise to right-wing calls for cutting domestic programs such as public education that’s perceived to advantage people of color.

As the baby boomer generation grows increasingly into its gray hair, it will become more and more dependent on young Americans of color to support them in Social Security-dependent old age. But will they? Conservatives may want to ignore the racial-ethnic changes that are transforming our nation, but they do so at their own cost—in the voting booth and their wallets—if they force our nation’s next generation of school kids to receive poor education before entering the workforce to help pay for their elders’ retirement.

Such penny-wise, pound-foolish politics could have devastating consequences for our economic competitiveness and our prosperity in just two decades, when most Tea Party activists will be in their seventies and eighties. This is a ticking time bomb that simply cannot be ignored.

Sam Fulwood III is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a member of the board of the American Youth Work Center, which publishes Youth Today.