High Cost of Ignoring Minority Students

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(The Root) — Recent census data reveal that, for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half of all children born in the United States, with 50.4 percent of children under age 1 identified as Hispanic, black, Asian American or members of another ethnic minority group.

In terms of the overall population, African Americans are the second-largest minority group in the nation (after Hispanics), with a 1.6 percent increase between 2010 and 2011. Minorities now make up nearly 37 percent of the overall U.S. population, and it's predicted that by 2042, a minority of Americans will be non-Hispanic whites.

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What do all these numbers mean for our understanding of race, for the issues that affect communities of color and for our very concept of who is a "minority" in this country? The Root has gathered a variety of perspectives on the significance of America's becoming a browner nation for a series of interviews on whether, and why, we should pay attention to these demographic changes.

For the first in the series, The Root talked to Sandra E. Timmons, president of A Better Chance, an organization dedicated to boosting the number of well-educated young people of color who are prepared to assume positions of responsibility and leadership in American society. With alumni including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and singer Tracy Chapman, it carries out its mission by placing talented children who are educationally disadvantaged in college-preparatory schools.

The Root: For the first time in U.S. history, most of the nation's babies are members of minority groups, and the census has forecast that non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered in the United States by 2042. What might be the positive and negative effects of these changing demographics when it comes to issues affecting communities of color?

Sandra E. Timmons: California and Florida have gone majority minority already. There have been signs all along that our presence as a multiethnic nation was changing. I think there is fear, certainly, because of our complicated, tortured history of race and race relations and all of those things. I think our whole approach to things like education has been so shortsighted — when it comes to things like what it means to invest in the next generation, we are not looking at the longer-term, bigger-term picture.

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I think, if nothing else, this should be news that begins to shift our focus to what the long-term cost is of not educating our children so that they are as productive as possible and contributing to society in the most meaningful ways. People are already looking at the economic cost of the achievement gap in America's schools … So, if anything, the data needs to shift our focus to longer-term thinking about how we can have the kind of future society we want.

TR: The idea that America will be a "majority minority" nation gets a lot of attention. Is there anything you wish people would focus on instead of, or in addition to, the numbers?

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SET: Every time I hear about these large cuts where hundreds of teachers are being laid off, I wonder, "What are people thinking?" If we're not investing in young people, why would we think that would not result in more problems down the line [regarding] people who aren't finishing school, aren't going on to college, aren't maximizing who they should be?

I believe when we stop focusing on how these issues disproportionately affect black and Latino kids, we do it at our own peril. The fact that it happens in one corner of our society — a corner that's becoming larger — should be a sign that these issues affect all of us. We're all in this together.

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TR: As more Americans have nonwhite ancestry, will the definition of whiteness itself be affected?

SET: I think our concept of whiteness has already been affected. I think that race as a construct isn't working as well. Clearly those lines are being blurred and crossed. We [A Better Chance] don't use [the word] "minority" because it's been a misnomer for quite some time. We think that "youth of color" is much more inclusive.

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TR: Do you see the demographic trends continuing, and if they do, will it affect the work you do?

SET: I see them continuing. I think that's where the country has been headed, and I certainly think it will impact our work. We have worked to create opportunities for young people of color.

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As we talk about what these trends mean and the need for quality education, I hope we can create more opportunities for more young people as a result of this. I hope people recognize and see the need for investing in organizations like mine and others that are working to bridge a gap and help more young people achieve their full potential.

Next: Marcia Alesan Dawkins.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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