Why Our Vision of America’s Future Must Count People of Color’s Needs

It would be best to build an agenda for the country based on who and what we want to be, rather than on who and what we fear.

By Rinku Sen Jul 18, 2012

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting of demographers and policy advocates where I experienced a revelation. The Center for American Progress (gigantic DC-based think tank) and Policy Link (major research and action institute based in Oakland, California) are working on a massive report about the policy implications of the nation’s changing demographics. I am on an advisory committee for the project.

We focused on the age/race correlation in changing demographics. According to a report by Policy Link and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at USC, we’ve basically got old people who are 80 percent white, and young people who are at least 50 percent of color. In the places where this generational racial gap is most pronounced, like Arizona, there has been a disinvestment in the social and economic supports that young people need – cuts in education funding, barriers to accessing health care, growth in criminalizing policies, and so on.

Manuel Pastor, a professor of geography and American Studies at the University of Southern California, and a leader of the study, has noted that, "Where the old don’t see themselves reflected in the young, there’s less investment in the future." In Arizona, recent politics have revealed not just that older white people are not interested in young communities of color, but rather that a powerful block among them (definitely not all of them) are actively hostile and supporting punitive policies with racist impact like the ethnic studies ban and SB 1070.

In the meeting, I noted that a certain line of reasoning emerges as people grapple with these realities. The line goes something like this: "if older white folk are uninterested in investing in communities that don’t look like them, then they themselves will suffer because much of our infrastructure will come apart. We won’t have a skilled educated workforce, and that will create huge gaps in our ability to produce, compete and care for ourselves as a nation. White folk withhold support for a safety net/public education/comprehensive immigration reform at their own peril." Pastor said a version of this when he talked about this lack of investment affecting young white families who might want to live in the city but won’t be able to find a good public school to send their kids to.

The trouble with this line of argument, I noted, is that it presents a threat that I’m not sure white people can see or care about. They can’t see a downside to privatizing public schools, and they might figure (subconsciously of course) that if all those uneducated kids get out of hand, the prison system will take care of it. Several people at the meeting responded positively. They recognized both the threat to white futures as something our side sometimes uses, and they shared my question about how well it works.

And then Angela Glover Blackwell, the President of Policy Link and the facilitator of the meeting, intervened. Blackwell is an amazing woman, with decades of experience supporting great organizing and policy fights across the country. "I don’t make that argument," she said, "because my first concern and audience is us, people of color, and my vision for us is much bigger than being in service to white people."

Friends, this is what it means to get schooled by your elders!

With one sentence, Blackwell flipped the discussion by naming an assumption and putting out an alternative. She made me think about whom we’re organizing and for what purpose. She reminded me that convincing white folks to defend the rights of people of color is a limited, if necessary tactic, one that doesn’t replace the need to assert ourselves as often and as intensely as we can. It would be best to build an agenda for the country based on who and what we want to be, rather than on who and what we fear.

Still, few significant social changes that benefit people of color will be possible without robust participation from white communities, hence Manuel’s message about young white families who wish to live in cities. Racial justice does improve the lives of struggling white people too (Medicaid expansion anyone?) but making any of us to believe it is mighty challenging.

Maybe these two threads of constituency building come together in something like the Caring Across Generations Campaign, which asserts that the elderly can’t rely on their families’ resources as they age and will need a highly skilled, heavily immigrant, young workforce to care for them. The campaign therefore pushes a public policy solution that creates three million new jobs in the care industries and provides immigration and labor reforms to support the workforce. There is definitely an implied threat here – who is going to take care of you, elderly white person? But the campaign so explicitly leads with love, and with people of color on both sides of the equation, that their set up feels like it might hold up under pressure. Getting three million new public jobs through Congress is unlikely in the coming year, but over time, two powerful and unified constituencies acting as one might be able to make it happen.

So I had a both/and revelation. We can’t forget that the new demographic deserves a good life and just nation for their own sakes. Nor can we forget the dreams and anxieties of the fading majority. The strategic challenge is in bringing the two together.