Sarah Palin’s “real Americans,” Lou Dobbs’ birther madness, Glenn Beck’s conviction that President Obama “hates” white people: All of this is best understood in context of the hard, cold reality of demographics. The Times’ Frank Rich said it best after the White House beer summit: “Beer won’t cool the fury of those who can’t accept the reality that America’s racial profile will no longer reflect their own.”
I’ve written previously about the anxieties America’s changing culture and economy understandably present for working-class and low-income whites. Progressive political leaders have consistently avoided speaking to those anxieties in a meaningful way; demagogues like Beck and Palin have predictably stepped in to fill the emotional gap.
But the Southern schools study raises another dangerous point about our collective reluctance to face the inevitable browning of America: The huge opportunity gap between white kids and kids of color—particularly blacks and Latinos—is a time bomb that will eventually explode.
The Southern schools study, published by the Southern Education Foundation, charts a slow, steady rise in the percentage of students across the region who are people of color, starting in the 1960s and topping the 50 percent mark this year. But it also notes that in 2007, the South became the first region to have a majority of its public school students poor enough to qualify for the free lunch program. These two trends are, of course, related.
Nearly a quarter of both black and Latino Americans lived in poverty as of 2008; that same year, more than a quarter of black families struggled to pay for food. With the massive job loss in both communities during 2009—nearly a quarter of each group is out of work or getting by with part-time jobs—these poverty and hunger numbers have likely worsened dramatically. As schools get blacker and browner, they will also get poorer.