‘Making America Work’ Means Confronting Race

“The American high school classes graduating this year will be the last ones ever that are majority white,” Ronald Brownstein, Editorial Director of Atlantic Media, reminded us in his opening remarks today at the National Journal’s panel on “The Next America: Making America Work.”

The American workforce will be increasingly dependent on the ideas, skills, and decisions of a rising generation of mostly minority Americans. The challenge for America is that while racial and ethnic minorities are the fastest growing demographic segment of American citizens, these groups also have the highest rates of poverty and the lowest rates of educational attainment.

Interestingly, keynote speaker Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) perfectly demonstrated the primary barrier to bettering the economic situation of most racial and ethnic minorities in America.

Confusingly, Scott, South Carolina’s first black U.S. senator, completely dismissed race as an issue facing many Americans today. He maintained that “what you look like on paper is more important than what you look like when you walk through the door.” But, too frequently, what you look like on paper means your fate is predetermined if that makes you look black, Latino, or Asian-American when you walk through Sen. Scott’s proverbial door.

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, race is still very much an issue in the United States. For example, a 2012 Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report indicated that interested black homebuyers are shown 18 percent fewer homes for sale than their white counterparts, effectively keeping from purchasing homes in certain areas. Thus, while overt discrimination has been replaced with more subtle forms of discrimination in the housing market, it persists. And it is preventing Americans from investing in their futures.

Furthermore, subtle racial bias still exists in the current system of credit scoring. A Suffolk University Law Review revealed that borrowers are penalized for using the types of credit disproportionately used by people of color. Because credit scores are hugely important in buying a home, starting a business, obtaining a loan, and sometimes even getting a job, biased discrepancies in scoring practices greatly influence the life chances of people of color in America.

Regardless of whether or not these policies were intentional (and there has been much controversial historical and political debate on the matter), they prevent American racial-ethnic minorities from accessing the same economic opportunities as other Americans. Which is why Scott’s dismissal of race is such a problem. By denying that race is relevant even now (when it clearly is), he is obstructing attempts to actually and genuinely mitigate the effects of race.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor reiterated the importance of acknowledging the existence of race and its many consequences in her recent dissent in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. “Race matters,” she writes. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.”

It seems Sen. Scott would disagree. Scott, who was raised by a struggling single mother, offered what he considered sage advice to a generation of impoverished, mostly minority, young people: “Think your way out of poverty.”

But Scott neglected to recognize that this is an impossible thing to do. No one can “think” themselves away from bias or discrimination. No one can “think” their way to equality, especially when there are structural forces in place that are keeping minority Americans glued to the ground.

Encouragingly, the conference touched on some innovative programs that have had isolated success in neutralizing the ways in which race affects economic conditions. Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) is a program that targets a diverse group of high school students in an effort to nurture broad skills that will strengthen America’s competitiveness in the global workforce. But P-TECH is only in two states and no similar curriculum is in place consistently throughout the country.

In the final moments of a Q&A session, a frustrated audience member bluntly asked what everyone should be thinking: “What is going to fix this?” The panel could offer no new plans or solutions or programs. Perhaps that was because there aren’t any. More likely though, like Sen. Scott, we just do not want to discuss them.

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