As American students head back to school this year many teachers and parents will likely not notice a subtle change in the makeup of the nation’s classrooms. Last year, approximately 51 percent of America’s public school students were white, while blacks, Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and children of mixed-race couples constituted 49 percent of all students.
However, this year the inevitable has finally occurred and the mix has flipped — today whites make up just 49.7 percent of the nation’s public schoolchildren, while the rest, for the first time, collectively make up the majority.
A 0.6 percent difference doesn’t seem like much, but this gap will widen in the coming decades, hitting a 10-point gap by 2022 — just eight years from now. Then, less than a decade hence, the Department of Education has forecast that 45.3 percent of public schoolchildren will be white, while 54.7 percent will collectively represent the “majority-minority.” Four years after that, in 2026, that first majority-minority national class will be ready to graduate and vote.
To get a sense of what that means, consider that this Class of 2026 will, between now and their graduation, see seven congressional elections and three presidential elections — 2016, 2020, and 2024 — come and go. Between now and then, technology will continue to advance and climate change will continue to worsen as more as more carbon gets pumped into the air. These students will only distantly remember — and probably only if their elders point it out to them — that the United States once possessed the largest economy in the world.
What will these students think of the country they are about to inherit? Will they be hopeful? Proud? What will their concerns be? How will they judge those who inhabited and ran the country before demography turned the country from a majority-white country to a majority-minority one? Most importantly, will the new America these children are creating by their very existence be one that we will be proud to bequeath to them?
A view to the future…
At the moment, things don’t look terribly great on this last question. While legal segregation ended more than a generation ago, de facto segregation has nonetheless reasserted itself, and many American communities and schools today are as or even more segregated than they were in the 1960s. The city of Ferguson, Missouri, is a case in point. There, an elderly white power structure keeps in place a punitive, discriminatory police department that occupies the majority-black community like an army.
Then there is the issue of class. Middle-class incomes have more or less stagnated since the 1980s, and the economic inequality that has built up in our society as a consequence shows no sign of abating. Continued technological advancement and globalization will — by all accounts — make today’s winner-take-all society even worse than it is today. Since class is so very much correlated with race in America, the implication will be that as time goes on, the U.S. will become even more rigidly stratified in terms of race than it is today.
America, then, may very well begin to look something like a mix of Japan, where the old rule, and Brazil, one of the most racially diverse yet unequal societies on Earth. Only in our case, our upper class will be old and white, while the lower class will be young, brown, and black. Will these two Americas be able to coexist in the years ahead when, in between one shuffling off to its final reward and the other coming fully into its inheritance, they will be forced to live and work alongside one another? Will they recognize their mutual dependence upon one another, or will they see each other as inherently alien and hostile? Will power, wealth, and influence all be peacefully ceded by one to the other as this first generation of majority-minority schoolchildren goes to the polls in future years?
One hopes so, but our first experience with what this new era in American life will entail has not gone entirely smoothly. America’s first black president has seen unprecedented political resistance to nearly all of his initiatives, all while many continue to question not just his politics but his legitimate rights to U.S. citizenship. The Republican Party, also known as the party of old, rich, white people, has enacted barriers to voting that smack of Jim Crow and have explicitly been put in place to deny minorities and Democrats — the party that most select to represent them — access to the ballot box.
Then there are states like Arizona and Alabama, which have bitterly contested not just the right of our first black president to govern the country, but the very right of non-whites to walk around freely, engage in commerce, or pursue any other activity that a peaceful, law-abiding citizen might engage in. This over-policing of our non-white fellow citizens often produces little beyond violence and a wide-ranging distrust of legitimate authority that creates distance not just between our increasingly diverse communities and the police and government, but also from one another.
This, in turn, undermines faith and confidence in the social and political institutions that are necessary to bind together a country as huge as ours. Without that faith in the basic fairness and legitimacy of these institutions, people become cynical and — with good reason — they seek alternatives to traditional means of voicing discontent and airing grievances. Societies have a choice in how they resolve disputes, and when electoral ballots and legal briefs are seen as — at best — rigged processes that preserve an entrenched and oppressive status quo, people stop using them. Indeed, in the U.S., voter turnout continues to slowly decline year after year.
All this makes for a very sick democracy, and it creates the impression that all our political system is capable of producing is gridlock and shambolic policy-making that does very little solve the everyday problems of most Americans. Politics in America, it must seem to average people, benefits very few — a fact confirmed by scholarly research that now suggests America is much more akin to a political oligarchy than a democracy. With social mobility collapsing, wages falling flat, distrust in our institutions growing, and animosity between America’s haves and have nots expanding, what will politics look like for the Class of 2026? Will they still believe in Ballots and Briefs, or will they turn to the third and fourth “B”’s of political conflict: Battles and Bullets?
A deadline for democracy?
It’s important to note, however, that this is not a purely American question. Across the world the institutions of political democracy are becoming calcified and abandoned by more and more people. In the rest of the West, voter turnout is, like in America, on the decline, while in the developing world, many countries that were once democratic or democratizing have abandoned liberal democracy for either outright despotism or a form of elected dictatorship that keeps the outward forms of democracy but hollows it out from within. Democracy, then, is in retreat, and the progress made on liberal reform that was seen in the late 20th century has now stalled as we move toward the quarter-century mark of the 21st.
There are many reasons why this has occurred. Globalization, inequality, technological change, shifts in demographics, cultural change, the “War on Terror,” the decline of the West — these factors all seem to be working together to sap the strength of liberal democracy both at home and abroad by sowing distrust between diverse, unequal groups and by preventing democratic politics from actually solving crippling, long-term problems. The question is whether supporters of democracy can keep those forces at bay long enough to find a solution to democracy’s problems before it is too late and we give up hope in it altogether.
How long do we have before malaise and despair in the status quo truly set in to dangerous levels? Take a look at the schoolchildren who represent America’s first majority-minority national classroom. They start voting in 12 years. If we haven’t made meaningful progress on bequeathing to them a system that can actually solve their problems and address their concerns, we have failed them. Democracy has a deadline, and time may very well be up by the time they graduate.