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Maya Wiley Headshot

A Democracy of Diversity

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We heard two big news items on May 17th that call us to a reckoning.

The Census Bureau has reported that, for the first time, the majority of live births today are born to Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Blacks and Native Americans, not people who are White. As a nation that has worked hard to come to terms with a history of racial discrimination and create a fair society, something we are all proud of, the news signals a major demographic shift in which no one racial group will be a majority of the country if these birth trends continue. Our economy, political life and our national identity are influenced by this demographic shift.

The second big news story informed us that group of Republican strategists and a major donor are a crafting a set of campaign ads to link President Obama to the controversial and, for many, offensive comments, of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

These news stories remind me just how far we've come as a country but also how much further we need to go. We are a democracy of diversity. But we still struggle with what that means. Should we make it tougher to vote or easier? Are we all able to participate in solving our economic problems? And are we truly a "we?"

To answer these questions, we must advance an honest conversation about race and the society we want to build and live in.

For some, it is racist to talk about race and some fear that leaders from racial groups who we typically call "minorities" will only represent the interests of minorities. In fact, this is the fear that the Obama/Wright attack ad would stoke. Presumably, to mitigate any claim of racism, the ads would use an educated Black speaker to tell viewers that President Obama is lying about being a leader for all Americans. Whether or not President Obama should be re-elected is for voters to decide in November and voters should always be encouraged to ask whether a candidate, any candidate, is interested in and willing to understand their values, priorities and needs and work to address them. Reading about the Obama/Wright attack ads, it's clear to me that we are all still fearful of confronting our own racial anxieties. No one wants to make a mistake and be called racist. And I, personally, don't think we should call White voters racist because they want to know whether a candidate for office will represent their interests. Similarly, Latinos, Black, Asian and Native Americans all should be able to ask the same questions and not be considered complainers who want more than their fair share.

As the country rapidly becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, where people who are White will be a majority of those 65 and older and a majority of the youth of this country will be from many different racial and ethnic communities not thought of as White, we have to be able to talk about what we all need and also how we are positioned differently so that we can produce solutions that work for all of us, including people who are White.

Let me share an example of what I mean.

We all need to see a doctor when we're sick. We all need jobs that help us support our families. We all need affordable, safe places to live. We all have a lot of needs and for far too many of us, we are not able, no matter how hard we work, to meet them in our current national circumstances. Approximately one in twelve White Americans is unemployed. That is shocking and must change. But consider this too: Approximately one in eight Laotian, Hmong, and Bangladeshis are unemployed. One in seven Latinos are unemployed! And one in six Black Americans are unemployed! Youth of all ages have significantly higher rates of unemployment and youth of color have the highest rates. Our economy isn't producing enough jobs, but the jobs it is producing are not created equal. Of the fastest growing occupations, people of color are concentrated in the lowest paying. And our elders require a vibrant workforce with good wages to support their retirement and care.

We have to be able to talk about how we all get what we need. And in order for us all to get it, we have to be able to discuss, debate and think about how we do it in ways that recognize that we are all in trouble and that we are not going to have a one-size-fits-all solution, not if we are all to benefit. And we should not be called racist because we crave this conversation. If we are, it will be that much harder for our country to move toward a democracy of diversity, in which all people, regardless of their race are valued and included.

Instead, what we will become is a hierarchy of misery.