There are no "minority" races in the public school systems of America's Southern and Western states. Literally. A new study, released last week and reported in the New York Times, reveals that white students are no longer a demographic majority in the 15 states of Dixie. The same has been true in the West since 2003. And no majority means no "minorities," either.
This is exactly the kind of thing that's making the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the world so damn crazy. But it's also the thing that will permanently cripple this country if we don't finally address the striking opportunity gap that still exists across racial lines.
The school studies are, of course, about a lot more than schools. They are the latest bits of data in a building mound of evidence that America's cultural complexion is rapidly darkening. The Census Bureau estimates our national demographics will defy majority/minority groupings altogether by 2042, when whites will account for about 46 percent of the population, down from 66 percent in 2008. Among kids, the white majority will disappear by 2023.
And all of that's without factoring in the Census' routine undercount of urban populations in general and Latinos in particular. Latinos, by the way, are driving the population shift. While the absolute number of white Americans is likely to shrink over the next 40 years, the number of Latinos is expected to nearly triple. One in three Americans will be Latino by 2050.
No wonder Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — who made a name for herself in 2009 with hysterical reactions to Barack Obama's presidency — is so frightened by the upcoming 2010 Census that's she's calling for civil disobedience. She's vowed that she'll violate the law and refuse to fully fill out her Census form. Bachmann is convinced ACORN — you know, that frightening group that's always trying to do stuff for poor black people — is up to something ominous surrounding the decennial population count. In a June Fox News appearance, she actually invoked the 1940s Japanese internment camps in explaining her reluctance to give the government too much personal information.
Sarah Palin's "real Americans," Lou Dobbs' birther madness, Glenn Beck's conviction that President Obama "hates" white people: All of this is best understood in context of the hard, cold reality of demographics. The Times' Frank Rich said it best after the White House beer summit: "Beer won't cool the fury of those who can't accept the reality that America's racial profile will no longer reflect their own."
I've written previously about the anxieties America's changing culture and economy understandably present for working-class and low-income whites. Progressive political leaders have consistently avoided speaking to those anxieties in a meaningful way; demagogues like Beck and Palin have predictably stepped in to fill the emotional gap.
But the Southern schools study raises another dangerous point about our collective reluctance to face the inevitable browning of America: The huge opportunity gap between white kids and kids of color — particularly blacks and Latinos — is a time bomb that will eventually explode.
The Southern schools study, published by the Southern Education Foundation, charts a slow, steady rise in the percentage of students across the region who are people of color, starting in the 1960s and topping the 50 percent mark this year. But it also notes that in 2007, the South became the first region to have a majority of its public school students poor enough to qualify for the free lunch program. These two trends are, of course, related.
Nearly a quarter of both black and Latino Americans lived in poverty as of 2008; that same year, more than a quarter of black families struggled to pay for food. With the massive job loss in both communities during 2009 — nearly a quarter of each group is out of work or getting by with part-time jobs — these poverty and hunger numbers have likely worsened dramatically. As schools get blacker and browner, they will also get poorer.
Which means students will struggle to learn. "Children growing up in food insecure households are more likely to be in poor physical and psychological health," writes the Economic Policy Institute's Algernon Austin. "They have more behavioral problems and do worse in school. We want black children to do better in school, but academic improvements are not likely to occur when more and more black children are growing up in households facing hunger."
The Mississippi commissioner of higher education, Hank Bounds, put it more bluntly to the Times: "An affluent 5-year-old has about the same vocabulary as an adult living in poverty."
Since Reconstruction, we have talked about race and opportunity in America as though it's a problem for some of us only: Black people are poor; what should good white folks do to help them? That construction has always offered false comfort to a country that leverages deep inequality to fuel massive growth. But as we barrel toward the point where blacks and Latinos can no longer be dismissed as "minority" populations, it's a fantasy Americans cannot continue to indulge.