The election of the country’s first African-American president ushered in an era of hope and contradiction. While the victory suggested extraordinary racial progress, Americans of color continued to face gaping disparities in nearly every arena — education, health, housing, and employment. These disparities have only worsened since then, and they cannot be ignored.
Today, 40 percent of children and youth in America are people of color. By 2025, they will represent the majority of youth. People of color will determine the nation’s future. Will today’s children have the skills, knowledge, and opportunities to form tomorrow’s middle class, poised to guide the United States to prosperity? Economic and social inclusion — equity — is inseparable from economic growth and competitiveness.
The economic disaster beginning in 2008 hit communities of color first and worst, even as it also hurt many poor, working-class, and middle-class whites. In 2009, the poverty rate was 25.8 percent for blacks, 25.3 percent for Hispanics, 12.5 percent for Asians, and 9.4 percent for whites. More than one-fifth of the country’s children are poor, the worst track record in the developed world.
How America produces such disparities is no mystery. Poverty is tied directly to educational attainment, and disparities are etched into the school system at every level. By the fourth grade, only 17 percent of poor children score at or above proficient levels in reading, and only 22 percent are proficient or better in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only 62 percent of black students and 64 percent of Latino and Native American students graduate high school, compared to 91 percent of Asian Pacific Islander and 81 percent of white students.
And what happens to young people who do not graduate? Seventy-two percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s are jobless. By their mid-30s, 6 in 10 have spent time in prison, a mark that limits or destroys a man’s economic prospects long after his release. The United States has the highest recorded incarceration rate in the world, with 7.2 million people in prison or on parole in 2009, and people of color are disproportionately locked up. African Americans represent 12.4 percent of the U.S. population but 38.2 percent of those behind bars. Hispanics, the fastest growing group in the nation, represent 15.8 percent of the population but 20.7 percent of inmates.
These obstacles are compounded by the reality that society’s most vulnerable groups generally live in society’s most vulnerable places — neighborhoods stripped of decently paid manufacturing jobs and of investment in the infrastructure that fosters opportunity.
America, in its long struggle for inclusion, has removed many legal barriers to equal opportunity. But legal gains can take the nation only part way. Persistent social barriers and entrenched institutional obstacles still limit opportunity for many people of color. Take jobs, for example. Discrimination against people of color in employment is illegal. Yet to land that job, you must have the right degrees, you must be able to get to the job, and you must have the social networks and references that make you a competitive candidate. These requisites are too often elusive in communities of color.
This inequity imposes high costs on virtually every actor in the regional economy, and in turn, state and national economies. Sharp regional disparities stifle growth, slow momentum, and erode the sense of community that binds neighbors, and communities, together.