America: More Diverse yet Less Equal?

A decline in white births comes at a time when two key civil rights programs may be dismantled.

Protesters holding signs outside the Supreme Court (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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is occurring in a supposedly colorblind, race-neutral society in which conservatives argue that “affirmative action” is outdated, unnecessary and tantamount to racism against white people.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.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.