May 24, 2007

America's Next Generation

What will the United States look like in 2030? How different will the face of the nation be in a quarter century? And how will that difference affect the country?

A recent Census report breaking down the nation’s demographics by age group suggests that the United States of 2030 will be one with a much higher percentage of minorities of voting age. As an aging white population is gradually replaced with a more diverse next generation, the country’s priorities are likely to shift to reflect the changing demographics.

In 2006, the American minority population topped 100 million for the first time. Today, nearly one in three Americans is Hispanic, African American, Asian, or from another minority group. However, for those under 19, minorities represent 42% of the country. Compare that to the 80% of Americans over the age of 60 who are white and it is clear that there is a racial generation gap that affects both the America we are and the America we will become.

Today, the older white population exercises a great deal of power and influence in both voting and setting the nation’s policy agenda. As Dr. Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau explains it, “There’s a fairly large homogenous population 60 and older that may not be sympathetic to the needs of a diverse, youthful population.” This disproportionate power of the homogenous older population can impact policy decisions for social programs and education, areas that impact more heterogeneous younger Americans more directly.

While the racial generation gap gives a great deal of power to the older, white population today, that will change as the percentage of minorities in America continues to grow over the next several decades. The result will be an electorate more attuned to issues that affect minority communities and minority voting blocks with greater power to pursue their own agendas. Even the next generation of white Americans, having been raised in a more heterogeneous environment, will draw from a more diverse perspective in making voting and policy decisions.

I think the generational shift that is on its way will help the country domestically and abroad. At home, greater attention should be paid to the social problems that disproportionately impact minorities – lack of health insurance, disparities in health care, gaps in educational achievement, crime. These are problems that chip away at the nation’s foundation and must be seriously addressed. With the increase in influence from the minority electorate, these problems should receive the attention they deserve.

Meanwhile, in the shrinking global community, this wealth of diversity will be an advantage for the United States. As is more apparent by the day, the ability for the United States to impact global affairs without international support is limited. The shifting demographics within American borders will only better prepare the nation to consider the perspectives of nations beyond those borders. A more humble and sensitive foreign policy, supported by a strong military, will better allow the United States to achieve the goals of security and economic growth.

Since its birth, the United States has successfully incorporated and gained strength from many different ethnic groups. As the next generation of Americans, the most ethnically diverse in history, rises in influence, it will add a new chapter to this history.

May 13, 2007

Moving Forward in Memphis

(NOTE: This article appeared as part of a compilation of comments from the Commercial Appeal's "citizen members" of the editorial board on May 13, 2007)

The law of inertia tells us that things tend to move in the direction they are going unless they are acted upon by an outside force. For years, Memphis politics have seemed to move in ways where the interests of individual politicians have taken higher priority than delivering effective governance to Memphians. Not all of our leaders are guilty of this, but enough are to have spawned a community often skeptical of its own leaders. This spring, however, it feels like the force that could alter this status quo may be arriving. That force is accountability.

Whether in the courtroom, through the media, or at the ballot box, Mid-South leaders are beginning to be held accountable by a public that is demanding an end to “politics as usual.” John Ford’s conviction and the weakening of the Ford grip are part of this larger shift. As Memphians become more engaged and willing to assert their democratic power, politicians will be left to rely on the strength of their records – as opposed to the strength of their political organization – to deliver votes.

This moment of change offers an opportunity to reshape Memphis politics. My hope is that a more engaged community will give Memphians with new and diverse perspectives opportunities to serve the greater community and to offer innovative solutions to the problems we confront. In order for the Mid-South to reach its potential, our government and its leaders must be willing and able to provide a measure of stability through thoughtful policies that keep the entire community in mind. If voters demand this from public servants, I do not doubt that there are leaders in this town who can deliver.

However gradually, accountability is beginning to force a change in Memphis politics. It is time for a new generation of Memphis leaders – and voters – to seize this opportunity to redefine Memphis politics, and with it, Memphis itself.

May 07, 2007

Pulling Together for Equal Education

(NOTE: This article appeared in the Commercial Appeal on May 6, 2007)

In a New York town best known for hosting the Sing Sing state prison, school leaders have made it their mission to eradicate the achievement gap that separates white and black students. Since 2005, the school district in Ossining, New York, a small suburban district with approximately 4,000 students, has initiated a variety of programs specifically targeting black males, a group whose grades and test scores consistently lagged behind those of other students.

The Ossining programs read like a dream list of ways to raise the achievement of at-risk students. The voluntary programs begin in kindergarten and continue through high school graduation. High school students may receive one-on-one guidance from black mentor teachers, while elementary school students' progress can be tracked by a team of teachers. Parents of students as young as sixth grade are able to attend college planning workshops that explain the practical obstacles college can present to families while at the same time putting college on a student's radar at an early age. These multipronged efforts seek to deliver academic support, shift the norm of what is achievable for black male students and build a community environment that helps push students to succeed.

Although in a district vastly different from the Memphis City Schools, the Ossining programs are exactly the type of comprehensive efforts that would complement the Memphis City Schools' mission of "Every Child. Every Day. College Bound." That campaign seeks to elevate the expectations and outcomes of all Memphis City Schools students, 85 percent of whom are black, and Supt. Carol Johnson is committed to ensuring that "College Bound" is more than just a slogan.

In Ossining, although it is too early to see any impact on test scores, school officials report that behavioral incidents are down and enrollment in college-level courses is up for black students. With such trends, it seems that those who champion equal educational opportunities would hail Ossining's efforts as a welcomed attempt to tackle the black-white achievement gap. Although some have offered such praise, other would-be allies are highly critical of the district's singling out black male students for special attention.

"I think this is a form of racial profiling in the public school system," Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, a group that plans to file a formal complaint regarding Ossining with the state education department, said in a New York Times article last month. Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, a group that advocates for disadvantaged children, told the Times, "You do have to worry whether you're creating a stereotype that is as damaging as the one you're trying to replace."

The goal of these civil rights advocates is presumably the same as the goal professed by the Ossining school district: to educate all black males to the highest of high standards. Yet these critics would halt extra attention being provided on a voluntary basis for fear of creating new stereotypes, or as Meyers put it in the Times article, "making (students) feel inferior or different simply because of their race and gender." Although there is a fundamental difference between assigning students to inferior schools based on their race and offering extra attention to students in a racial group that lags statistically in educational outcomes, there is validity to the critics' concern. In a perfect world, black students would not need any more attention to reach the same outcomes as other students. In fact, even in our own imperfect world, many black students excel without such attention. However, the reality -- especially in our own community -- is that many black students, particularly black males, are not achieving equal educational outcomes. For these students, the system is not working and it is incumbent on those who desire to solve this problem to offer creative solutions that work.

There are already enough challenges to elevating the educational opportunities of at-risk students, regardless of race. It is discouraging when those who seem to share the goal of eradicating the racial achievement gap construct additional roadblocks in the way of that goal. Students will be better served when racial politics, such as those surfacing in Ossining, do not derail programs that effectively tackle what some have dubbed the civil rights issue of our generation.

May 01, 2007

Build Up the Walls

As a boy, I spent many afternoons and evenings shooting baskets at the end of my driveway. Invariably, these shootarounds would at some point result in the ball bouncing over my neighbor’s fence (a result I attribute more to the layout of my driveway than to the waywardness of my jumpshot). To continue my game, I would sometimes alert the neighbors and ask them to retrieve my ball. More often, I would climb over the fence, but most often, I would kick a board out and climb through the fence. Now, as a homeowner (and fence owner), I can see that this practice of kicking out the fence was a nuisance for my neighbors who, on more than one occasion, had the demolished boards replaced.

My family’s relationship with these neighbors was cool at best. At no point did they confront me about the missing boards or discuss with my family ways that we could work together to salvage their fence and my basketball game. Ultimately, and without notice, my neighbors constructed a taller fence with wiring specifically designed to keep my ball on my driveway. This was their final attempt to solve the problem – let’s learn to live together by allowing ourselves to live apart.

Throughout history, fences have been used to solve problems in the most rudimentary of ways – by placing physical barriers that could limit interactions with the world beyond the walls. The most famous wall, the Great Wall of China, prevented raiders from escaping with much more than their own lives. In modern times, the Berlin Wall prevented East Germans from escaping the oppressive regime by which they were governed. In Berlin, walls were necessary because East German ideas were losers – if you can’t convince others that your view is correct, simply prevent them from leaving.

The reason walls are on my mind these days is that the United States seems to have gotten itself into the international wall-building business. On the American border with Mexico and in the violence-ridden streets of Baghdad, we are resorting to the wall, the most rudimentary of problem solving tools.

Last month, having exhausted quite a few military strategies to quell sectarian violence in Baghdad, American soldiers began construction of a 12-foot-high, 3-mile-long wall separating a historic Sunni enclave from Shiite neighborhoods. I am not qualified to say whether the wall is a good idea for policing a civil war (and the plans are reportedly on hold after complaints from the Iraqi prime minister), but it is certainly telling that four years after declaring “Mission Accomplished,” so heavy-handed a strategy is necessary.

Meanwhile, in our own country, rather than coming up with a real strategy to address the issue of immigration that led to the mass immigrant demonstrations of last spring, the best the government has come up with is a massive wall along the border with Mexico. Again, I cannot comment on the law enforcement wisdom of erecting this wall, but I am saddened that this is the best policy we can imagine for dealing with immigration.

Walls may be useful for law enforcement, but they are generally a symptom of a failure (or perhaps a lack of attempt) of other methods of solving problems. When my neighbors built a higher fence to contain my errant jumpers, they were taking unilateral action to protect their own property without regard for confronting the root of the problem, namely, me. Rather than doing the delicate work of asking me to refrain from destroying their fence, they simply raised their fence and figured the problem would go away.

Similarly, building walls as public policy foregoes the difficult work of immigration reform or inter-religious mediation, replacing it with a blunt and impenetrable impediment. Typically, complex public problems require thoughtfulness, vision, and compromise that can lead to complex solutions. Unfortunately, our country, like my neighbors, seems to be out of the thoughtfulness business and into the wall-building business.