There is a strange dichotomy occurring in 21st-century America: The country is becoming more diverse and less equal.
Last week the U.S. Census Bureau released data revealing that the majority of children under age 5 were from racial- and ethnic-minority backgrounds and predicted that white Americans will officially become a minority by 2043. At first glance this appears to be positive news -- the promise of a melting pot realized. Yet the report comes in the same month that the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hand down two important decisions about race: the first a challenge by the state of Alabama to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the second questioning the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions at the University of Texas. (The UT case was filed by a white woman claiming that she was discriminated against in favor of supposedly "less qualified" ethnic minorities -- though her grades and test scores failed to meet UT standards, regardless of race -- displaying the epitome of petulant white privilege.)
It seems that some white Americans in particular and conservatives in general see President Obama's ascendance and the growth of minority populations as reasons for abandoning proactive policies designed to eradicate racial inequality. Indeed, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia went so far as to describe affirmative action as a "racial entitlement" -- framing the issue through a political lens rather than a legal one -- and thereby qualifying it as welfare for the undeserving.
But the numbers don't lie.
Federal Reserve data and Bureau of Labor statistics show that although the nation is becoming less white, wealth is being disproportionately allocated into white hands. Wealth and income gaps continue to widen along racial lines, with whites earning $2 for every $1 earned by African Americans and Hispanics. That gap has remained consistent for 30 years -- despite affirmative action policies of the 1970s and early '80s. According to research by the Urban Institute, white households held four times the wealth of black households before the Great Recession, and that factor managed to increase to six times by 2010.
Meanwhile, the face of poverty, lack of opportunity and discrimination in employment and criminal justice remains overwhelmingly black and brown. The recent census data and court challenges to programs aimed at creating an egalitarian, racially integrated society force the question of whether America is prepared to reconcile the harsh realities of its tortured past with the potential progress of its multiracial future.
Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the UT case, provides a prima facie case of cognitive dissonance for arguments against affirmative action. Besides the fact that Fisher's grades failed to meet UT's threshold, her argument is flawed by virtue of the fact that the affirmative policy was more likely to benefit her as a white female than any racial minority.
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Sally Kohn, writing for Time magazine, explains that in the few cases in which UT admitted students with lower scores, 42 were white -- and only five were black or Hispanic. Kohn also cites a 1995 study showing that 6 million women -- mostly white -- had jobs they wouldn't otherwise have, solely because of affirmative action. Enforcement by federal agencies was key, with another study showing that female employees increased 15.2 percent at federal contractors, but only 2.2 percent elsewhere. Kohn argues that these benefits for white women are equally apparent in the private sector. IBM research revealed that its own affirmative action program led to a tripling of the number of female managers over the course of a decade, but executives of color -- regardless of gender -- increased only slightly.
These disparities aren't new. In fact, the Great Recession of 2007 has forced the endemic realities of racial and economic inequality back on the stage of political debate. Today the unemployment rate for African Americans remains nearly double that for whites. The BLS report from May 2013 shows that white women over the age of 20 experienced the lowest unemployment rate of all, at 5.8 percent. This was compared with 6.4 percent for white men, 13.5 percent for black men and 11.2 percent for black women.
The National Center for Education Statistics found that 47 percent of white Americans ages 18 to 24 enrolled in colleges and universities in recent years, compared with only 37 percent of African Americans. Researchers at Brandeis University concluded that this was in part due to the skyrocketing cost of higher education and the inevitable debt burden it creates for black and brown families. The wealth gap, therefore, only gets wider, passed from one generation to the next.
All this is occurring in a supposedly colorblind, race-neutral society in which conservatives argue that "affirmative action" is outdated, unnecessary and tantamount to racism against white people.
Of course, disparate treatment of minorities transcends economics. Just as wealth is inherited, so are the effects of slavery and discrimination. New York City's controversial stop-and-frisk policy proves that young black males are still subject to old racial codes -- designed to place them in chains. And new voting laws written by Republican-led state legislatures, as well as Alabama's pending challenge to the Voting Rights Act, show that the American body politic remains under the shadow of Jim Crow. As Salon's Joan Walsh points out in her recent book, historic discrimination against blacks amounted to "affirmative action for white people" -- giving them an immeasurable advantage that can't possibly be remedied in four short decades.
The debate currently raging over immigration reform highlights some of the worst anxieties over a shrinking white majority. Amendments to the Senate's "Gang of Eight" proposal have included a dismantling of the original "diversity visa program," which helped skilled African and Caribbean immigrants gain entry to the U.S. But guest worker visas have been expanded for natives of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Greece and the Netherlands -- apparently because their languages are underrepresented. (Curiously, it seems that Spanish no longer counts as a "European" language.)
The rapid growth of racial minorities as the new American majority is inevitable, despite any socially engineered efforts to change it. But South Africa's apartheid state and India under British colonial rule prove that a numeric majority is insufficient to guarantee racial equality. An assumption could naturally follow that a nation with broader diversity would produce more egalitarian outcomes, but it seems that America's socioeconomic elite is committed to a status quo in which power and wealth are retained in the hands of a select, white few. So far, no data suggest that this will change after 2043.