One of the first visible signs of the current recession was the sub-prime mortgage crisis, which caused a wave of foreclosures among many borrowers of color who had been unfairly targeted for high interest loans.
Had America paid attention to what was happening in communities of color, the nation might have been spared the worst effects of an economic catastrophe that pummeled home values and sucked Americans into a vortex of foreclosures and layoffs, and stalled economic growth. In a similar manner, the boat was missed in addressing our failing education system earlier, when test scores and dropout rates made it clear that something was going terribly wrong for many African-American and Latino students.
For too long, communities of color have been the canaries in the coal mine, sending out signals that should have served as urgent wake-up calls for the rest of the country. One approach to ensuring that communities of color participate fully in the vitality of American economic life is through a focus on equity--just and fair inclusion for all.
The pursuit of equity today is different from the pursuit of equality. While civil rights legislation established equality in principle many practical barriers remain to achieving economic and social parity. You can't just have the right to sit in a bus. Today, you need a bus that is frequent, connects you to employment, and provides a platform for economic, social, and physical mobility.
In many ways, inattention to equity brought about the country's current economic mess. The only way out is to refocus our sights on what it takes to build strong and healthy communities that enable everyone, including low-income people of color, to succeed. To do this, the country must focus on jobs that pay family-supporting wages; high-quality education that prepares the next generation for 21st-century success; immigration and immigrant policy that fully taps the productivity and contribution of all residents; and reducing incarceration while at the same time preparing more young men for successful re-entry as productive and engaged citizens and community members. Just as essential is making sure our communities are livable, with access to healthy foods and physical activity for everyone.
Time is also running short because the demographic clock is ticking. By sometime around 2050, the US Census projects America will shift from a majority-white society to a "majority-minority" society, with no single racial group as a majority. Seventy-eight million baby boomers are poised to eventually retire, to be replaced by a new complement of workers reflecting the richness and diversity of America. The very future of the country will depend on how well it prepares that next generation of workers.
This is the time to reimagine the American future. A bright future is possible if we keep in mind that diversity and equity are not the same. Just because the country has a black president and is moving toward a more multicultural future does not mean that equity has been achieved. At a time when everyone is hurting, communities of color are hurting even more. High unemployment and poverty rates and growing hunger continue to define the reality for many black and Latino families.
To change that reality requires recognizing that universal strategies and policies don't always work for everyone. For instance, the last attempt to address a financial crisis of this magnitude--the New Deal during the Great Depression--introduced many new programs but still fell short in reducing longstanding racial disparities. Sometimes, countless seldom-seen barriers prevent communities of color from getting the help they both need and deserve. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), touted as a cure-all, has not yet reached low-income communities of color. As we look toward 2010, we must find ways to target investment so that all will benefit.
In the end, though, racial progress is more than about policy. The civil rights struggle became a movement when it was fueled by ordinary citizens from all walks of life. To address today's pressing challenges, we need a similar movement, by Americans from every corner of the nation, who recognize that the country is at a crossroads and that the future depends on a broad vision of opportunity and inclusion for all.
Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute. She is the coauthor of Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America's Future, forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Company in 2010.
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