Children of Color and the Future of America

[Originally published on The Daily Voice.com.]

The children are our future. All Americans understand this truism. What we don't seem to understand is that this refers to all American children, not just the children of our own racial or ethnic group. Do whites realize that black children are their future? Do blacks understand that Hispanic children are their future? Do Hispanics know that Asian children are their future? So far, I'm not convinced that this is the case.

The latest news from the Census Bureau is that a majority nonwhite America is arriving sooner than we thought. Already, 43 percent of Americans under 20 years old are nonwhite. Whether we are ready for it or not, the future is coming.

All Americans would like the country to be strong and prosperous ten, twenty, thirty years from now. What we don't seem to realize is that the future prosperity of the country depends on how we treat our children today--all of our children. Currently, we are subjecting the majority of our future workforce--nonwhite children--to segregated and inferior schools, high rates of child poverty, counterproductive criminal justice policies and overt and covert racial discrimination in the labor market. We simply won't be the best we can be while continuing this status quo.

Who in America believes that the country would be better off with a less educated workforce than we have today? Yet our current educational policies and priorities mean that this will likely be the case. Hispanics and blacks have significantly lower educational attainment and achievement levels than whites. If we don't improve this situation, the country as a whole will suffer, not just Hispanics and blacks. We need to make sure that Hispanics and blacks have access to education of as high quality as whites from pre-kindergarten to college.

We know that poverty is bad for children. Children growing up in poverty do worse in school and are more likely to become involved in crime. Among developed nations, guess which country has the highest child poverty rate? That's right--the United States. In 2000, by the international standard of 50 percent of the national median income, 22 percent of American children were in poverty. In Germany, it was 10 percent. In Denmark, 2 percent.

If we adopted European-style anti-poverty tax transfers, we could make big reductions in child poverty. Anti-poverty policies would benefit not only Hispanics and blacks, but also a significant number of Asian-American children. Few people realize that Asian Americans, particularly those of Southeast-Asian descent, have higher than average poverty rates. Asian-American children's future success in American society depends on a commitment by non-Asian Americans to reducing child poverty.

Although the nonwhite population is growing rapidly, even in 2050, about two out of every five American workers will be non-Hispanic whites. White children also need good schools, less poverty and smarter criminal justice policies. The impact of our criminal justice policies on whites is rarely discussed since blacks and Hispanics are more adversely affected. But whites too, especially poorer and less-educated whites, are also hurt by our misguided criminal justice policies.

It is much better to have whites in the workforce being productive citizens than languishing in prisons and draining tax revenues. But our criminal justice policies do not reflect this priority. In 2000, the white incarceration rate in the United States was already about three times the European average. In the years since 2000, things have already become significantly worse. For white males, of the prime working ages of 18 to 54 years old, their number in prisons and jails increased by 11 percent from 2000 and 2007 to reach 700,000. For comparable white females, their number increased 51 percent to reach 93,000. The American incarceration rate should not be so high. With better criminal justice policies, we could have less crime and less incarceration.

Americans have a choice. We can begin to make the serious investments in our children--of all racial and ethnic backgrounds--and make sure that the country is strong and prosperous into the future, or we can pretend that the kids who do not look like us don't live in America. We can choose a politics that embraces the multiracial reality of America or one based on fictions of "us" and "them." One of these approaches will succeed and one will fail. The choice is ours.