Minority Birth Boom Raises Major Questions About American Education

On May17, the U.S. Census Bureau released the latest findings amassed from its 2010 survey. Racial and ethnic minorities—Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and Multiracials, now make up more than half of the youngest Americans. Depending on the perspectives and political alignments of the news source, articles heralded the findings, as a triumphant victory—the moment “minorities surpass Whites”—and an insidious omen—the day “Whites lose.” The findings give a concrete, factual basis to the shifts our society has both implicitly and explicitly known—that American society is increasingly diverse. Yet, while the facts of racial and ethnic diversity surround us, what we choose to do with the significances of this reality is a far different matter.

In the last century, racial and ethnic minorities have gained great strides in both social and civic presence. However, these gains have not resulted in the categorical dismantling of our society’s lingering social and political institutions. The holders of our national wealth and our political leaders are largely White. The failings of civic infrastructure, the ills of poverty and crime, and the implementation of drug laws most adversely affect communities of color. Media and pop culture are rife with pejorative depictions, inferences about, and caricatures of minorities. The 2008 recession only underscored existent divides. Relative to Whites, minorities suffered disproportionate unemployment rates, thus widening social and economic segregations.

For articles that allowed comment, it only took a few downward scrolls to evidence that those progressive, ideological changes that would embrace the nation’s changing racial makeup still have a long way to go. In an ever-diversifying America, racial minorities still suffer the obstacles of old social institutions and perspectives. Of the myriad of implications that arise from the Census’ findings, the most pressing are those of identity and education; different and yet symbiotic, social spheres.

The birthrate data challenges definitions of what it means to be of a particular race—contextually, perceptibly, and historically. We have a specific understanding of the historical meaning and present significance of terms like “full-blood,” “one-drop,” “passing,” and “mixed.” Such terms and check-box racial categories have come to shape how we construct and respond to race. What the Census’ findings evidence is that social practice, interpersonal exchanges, and political rhetoric must change in regard to our expanding diversity, particularly considering socio-economic shifts.  

It will do us no social good (if it ever has) to thrust upon others our attachments to what is appropriately White, necessarily Black, definitively Asian, and characteristically Latino—particularly when we do so to perpetuate bias and prejudice. This does not mean that Americans must abandon their cultural heritages. What the changing composition of our society signals is that the legacies and institutions that gave rise to social inequalities must break down if American identity is to evolve.

In the future, relative to older generations, the younger will expand traditional understandings of race. They will redefine what it means to be “American” and a racial minority in America. These changing definitions are significant to our other great problem, one underscored in several reactions to the Census’ findings—education.

The gaps and deficits in education, income, and long term success between minorities and Whites are well-documented realities. Yet with the Census data, in swept a strangely myopic focus on a small piece of the larger issue. In a New York Times article, William O’Hare, a senior consultant to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, commented that “[E]ducating young minorities [is] of critical importance to the future of the country and the economy.” Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress added that “[The U.S. does] a pretty lousy job of educating the younger generation of minorities.” While true in the broadest sense, their comments are beholden to an increasingly outmoded way of regarding the failures of education and egregiously shade over its stark reality:

We do a poor job of educating, period. This reality transcends both race and O’Hare’s and Teixeira’s inferential, socioeconomic attachments.

Relative to the rest of the world, American education has long been in decline, yet, only in the last decade have communities and government aggressively tackled our downshift. The most egregious failures of education policy have occurred in schools operating in low socioeconomic areas where the poor and working poor reside—rural towns, urban enclaves, and American Indian reservations. Though the rates of poor and working poor within racial groups are higher for Blacks, Latinos, and American Indians, the majority of those who live in these socioeconomics are White.

While the Census data does not provide information on the demographic characteristics of mothers, a Pew Research Center report evidences differences in age, education, and marital status among mothers of different racial groups. Along with the Census’ birthrate data, this may indicate one of two realities—one long-established, the other more expansive. With the former, the inference is that because racial minorities are disproportionately affected by poor education, a majority of American children are now at risk of suffering the extrapolated effects of its consequences. But, the data may also require a shift away from the way we traditionally pair disadvantage and race. If the birthrate data shows a change in racial identity and composition as well as a reorganization of relative socioeconomic status, the expanded perspective divorces the marriage of race and social inequality, and instead brings the disadvantages of low-socioeconomics to the forefront.

The latter would underscore a reality, yet a less prevalent way of framing disadvantage. Though the overlap rate is higher, the greatest civic and political disservices are not to minorities alone, but to the economically disadvantaged. It is in these communities that our society must invest today for a more successful tomorrow--no matter which racial box defines them.

The diversity of America’s least advantaged, least educated, and least successful undercuts both O’Hare and Teixeira’s notion that education improvements should occur through a racial lens. Though we may improve the welfare of Americans part-by-part, splitting the focus between races instead of by socioeconomics creates more complication than solution. The changing racial composition and social definition of our youngest citizens requires that we think critically and differently about our social institutions. Alternately we must focus on transforming and improving poor and working class communities’ access to quality education while also strengthening education services in those more affluent.

The Census’ birthrate findings force our society to confront two of its most contentious issues: the institutionalized conceptions of racial identity, and the problem of education. In both areas, we often speak of a better future, but that future must be more present. A child’s success is directly linked to the circumstances into which he is born—as much an economic issue as it is a racial one. In what kind of future will our youngest Americans find themselves? Will they be saddled with the legacies of our inequitable present? If we recognize that their future will be different than our own, how will our society change, on what principles, and spurred by the actions of whom?

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Felicia A. Reid

Felicia focuses on civil liberties, racial and juvenile justice, and criminal justice reform. She is the editor-in-chief of thisthatSAID--an online magazine that offers critical commentary on contemporary issues from diverse perspectives. Felicia received her J.D., with a concentration in Social Change Advocacy, from New York Law School. In 2007, she received her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Fordham University, where she focused on postcolonial literature and social identity theory. She also has a certification in French Language and Civilization from Paris-Sorbonne University.

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