Equity & Diversity Opinion

Our Looming ‘Racial Generation Gap’

By Jennifer Hochschild & Natha Scovronick — July 09, 2003 9 min read
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The ‘dependency ratio’—the ratio of those of working age to the young and old—is likely to become much higher.

The profile of Americans is changing, and that change is reflected strongly in the public schools. The outstanding demographic impact for the next few decades will come from the aging of baby boomers and, absent a major change in immigration laws, from increased racial and ethnic diversity in the population, especially the school-age population. The first of the baby boomers will reach age 65 shortly after 2010. By 2030, older Americans will make up roughly 20 percent of the population, nearly 70 million people. At the same time, the Anglo population of the country will become a smaller proportion of the total, decreasing to close to 50 percent by 2050.

Forecasters expect the black population to grow slowly from its current level of 13 percent, but the percentages of Hispanics (now also 13 percent) and Asian-Americans (4 percent) are both projected to almost double by 2025. (These figures assume that the current racial and ethnic categories will remain in use, although they may change as they become less meaningful due to growth in the percentage of children with parents of two races or ethnicities, now reported at 8 percent nationally.)

These new demographic trends will be felt most powerfully in California, but other states will see major changes as well; in at least 15 states, more than 40 percent of the school-age population will be non-Anglo by 2015. Latino children already outnumber black children by several million. Large cities will be especially affected; already in New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles, half or more of the children are immigrants or children of immigrants. They come from close to 200 countries, and there are no indications that the influx is slowing.

Because of the growth in the elderly population and the size of the school-age population, the “dependency ratio"—the ratio of those of working age to the young and old—is likely to become much higher, rising by a U.S. Census Bureau estimation from about 63 dependents per 100 workers in 1992, to about 83 per 100 in 2030. In addition, while the aged will be disproportionately Anglo, children will be more racially and ethnically diverse. In Los Angeles County, Calif., as the demographer William Frey notes, the “elderly population is still majority white, its working-aged population is only about one-third white, and its child population is predominantly Hispanic and other racial and ethnic groups.” As these changes spread across the country, he continues, they “are going to have enormous implications. We’re looking down the road at a huge racial generation gap between the old, white baby boomers and these young, multiracial people.”

This racial generation gap could create some real policy dilemmas. The need for schooling for the young will be great at the same time that the demand for health care and social services for the elderly will peak. At the least, we can expect severe competition for scarce public resources. The potential for social division will also be very high. In addition to polarization between young and old, we might see increased divisions between wealthy and poor, Anglo and non- Anglo populations, immigrants and native-born Americans, cities and suburbs, among ethnic or racial communities, and between supporters and opponents of the ideology of the American dream.

Underlying all of the tasks of American public schools is the goal of creating the conditions needed for people to believe in and pursue the ideology of the American dream. Former President Clinton described the dream this way: “The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one—if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.” The dream is the unwritten (and in practice unrealized) promise that all residents of the United States have a reasonable chance to achieve success through their own efforts, talents, and hard work; school is where they get their first chance to succeed and to prepare for later achievement. The dream also requires that Americans share the habits and values needed to maintain democratic institutions and to sustain the ideology itself; it is one of the jobs of the public schools to transmit those values and habits.

Underlying all of the tasks of American public schools is the goal of creating the conditions needed for people to believe in and pursue the ideology of the American dream.

All the transformations brought by the changing demography, however, could affect the ability of public schools to give children the opportunity to pursue their dreams and to learn democracy together. Polarization across generations and races could, for example, make funding reform more contentious, testing more divisive, and multicultural or inclusive policies more controversial. It could increase the frustration of groups that feel excluded from the American dream and make them more likely to reject it rather than seek to participate in it; it could make the privileged even more protective of their resources and insulation. The central question is whether political leaders will inflame these divisions or seek to ameliorate them, practice the politics of educational exclusion or inclusion, try to preserve the old social order of the schools or ease the entry of the new one.

Of course many policymakers, particularly elected officials, think little about the long run. The horizon until the next election is too short, and the rewards for small symbolic actions too great. In the face of the new demography, some will no doubt yield to the temptation for demagoguery, especially in situations of volatile transition. Other political activists will concentrate on securing benefits for their groups, rather than on broader policy considerations. But others might take a different stance. As the situation changes, some ethnic group leaders will be able to seek coalitions rather than focus on competition. And most importantly, some candidates for public office might decide it is best to try to lead all Americans by placing a priority on the democratic, collective values of participation, respect, inclusion, and opportunity.

With the potential for political and social chaos so great, it is possible that more Americans will want their leaders on the high road, rather than in the swamp.

Political developments in California over the last decade provide evidence that this is more than wishful thinking. Early in the 1990s, political debate there revolved around the conflict between native-born residents and undocumented immigrants, which blurred into a conflict between white and nonwhite Americans. In 1994, Proposition 187 (initially known as “Save Our State”) proposed that illegal immigrants not be allowed to use public services such as schools and hospitals, and required that public employees report service-seekers presumed to be illegal. The Mexican ambassador to the United States complained that “there is an equation now in California that goes: Illegal immigrants equal to Mexicans, equal to criminals, equal to someone who wants social services.”

With the potential for political and social chaos so great, it is possible that more Americans will want their leaders on the high road, rather than in the swamp.

The proposition passed overwhelmingly, supported by more than 60 percent of Anglo voters and almost 60 percent of black and Asian-American voters. Latino voters opposed it by a ratio of 2-to-1. Proposition 187 was followed two years later by Proposition 209, which abolished affirmative action programs in public institutions in California. Opponents interpreted this proposition also as an effort to protect white domination. It too passed, by a narrower but still persuasive margin of 8 points. In short, racial and ethnic tensions worsened during the early to mid-1990s, as the proportion of non-Anglos in California rose.

By the end of the decade, however, the politics of division no longer worked so well in California. Between 1994 and 1999, the proportion of Anglos agreeing in surveys that Hispanics had a negative impact on life in Los Angeles declined by a third, and the proportion saying the same about African-Americans declined by over half. In 1999, almost three-fourths of non-Latino Californians agreed that illegal immigrants should not “be prevented from attending public schools.” In the three years ending in December 2001, the proportion of Californians who perceived immigrants to be a “benefit” to their state increased substantially, while the proportion who saw them as a “burden” decreased. There remains plenty of prejudice and discrimination in California, and some of it will resurface when the economy is bad, but public opinion has moved toward a much greater accommodation of diversity.

Electoral politics has moved in the same direction during this period. Hispanic candidates have won the positions of lieutenant governor, sheriff of Los Angeles County, additional seats in the legislature, and the first major-city mayoralty since statehood. The Democratic candidate for governor in 1998 ran on a platform of tolerance and accommodation, and won. “At the time of Proposition 187,” said a Latino assemblyman, “we were scapegoated and used as political fodder. Now that era is over. Thank God.”

Many factors led to this change, but what matters most over the long run is that demographic transition eventually has led to political recalibration. In 1994, non-Anglos constituted about a seventh of California’s registered voters; by 2001, that percentage had increased to almost a third. And their proportions will continue to increase dramatically as more immigrants become naturalized citizens and then participating voters. As the director of the National Immigration Forum points out, “How they [the immigrants] break to one party or another may well determine which party dominates in the next few decades. It’s a high-stakes battle.”

The huge demographic and political changes shaping our nation, the political realignment that will presumably follow, the demonstrated commitment of Americans to providing access to public education for all children, and the fact that some educational reforms have been shown to improve achievement—all make this a propitious time to begin to build a new consensus on education policy.

This a propitious time to begin to build a new consensus on education policy.

We have an opportunity to create enduring education policies that can make the American dream work for more people. Class issues will continue to be very difficult, and ethnic and racial issues will not go away. But public education remains the most accessible and democratic political institution in the United States. Public action around schooling still provides the best chance for the liberating side of the American dream to take effect.

Because public schools belong to all of us, we can make the changes in them necessary to deal with the challenges and opportunities presented by the new demography and a new economy based on learning. We must get it right. If poor and non-Anglo children continue to lack sufficient resources, good teachers, a decent place to go to school, and connections with other Americans, the ideology of the American dream will be just a cover for systematic injustice, and the promise that “no child will be left behind” will be just another lie. Public education can help make the American dream work for everyone, and that will be more important than ever in our new America.

Jennifer Hochschild is a professor of government with a joint appointment in the department of African and Afro-American studies at Harvard University. Nathan Scovronick teaches education policy and directs the undergraduate program at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. This essay is from their book The American Dream and the Public Schools, published this year by Oxford University Press.

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