Americans warm to diversity

  • Article by: DANE SMITH and JENNIFER GODINEZ
  • Updated: December 14, 2013 - 3:14 PM

They overestimate the pace of change — but welcome it.

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Following preliminary results that showed him winning in several wards, Ward 6 City Council candidate Abdi Warsame is surrounded by supporters at the Mixed Blood Theatre Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Minneapolis, MN.

Photo: David Joles, DML - Star Tribune

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A flurry of recent films about racial oppression and civil-rights struggles has drawn both critical acclaim and surprisingly large audiences, including, obviously, millions of empathetic white viewers. From “12 Years a Slave” to “The Butler” to “42” (the Jackie Robinson story) to “Fruitvale Station,” people of all colors are learning anew how deep and indelibly the stain of prejudice runs in our nation.

As leaders of economic and social justice policy groups, we instinctively want to believe that this level of interest means attitudes are improving — that most Americans and Minnesotans still believe in a Pledge of Allegiance that promises “justice for all.”

Happily, hard evidence of a growing resolve to close racial disparities was published earlier this fall, emerging from extensive polling by the Center for American Progress in its report “Building an All-In Nation.”

Two particularly surprising results emerged from the polling of some 3,000 respondents.

First, Americans of all races actually overestimate the diversity of the United States.

When asked to estimate the total percentage of persons of color in the population, the median response was close to 50 percent. In fact, the percentage is still 37 percent.

Some pessimists have worried for years that support for racial equity policies lag because people are unaware of our nation’s growing diversity. The All-In Nation study suggests the opposite: that people of all races tend to think we have already reached the end of a majority white population. The Census Bureau projects that whites will not become a minority until 2043.

The second and even more uplifting surprise is that, despite this overestimate of the pace of demographic change, Americans increasingly see the upside of diversity. At the very least, they are no longer pressing the panic button. White fear of civil rights and integration, which fed white flight and white backlash from the 1960s on, is finally giving way to acceptance and optimism about the inevitability and desirability of a multiracial society.

Using composite measures of agreement with statements about perceived benefits and downsides to diversity, the Center for American Progress pollsters found that average scores on an “opportunity index” outweighed the scores on a “concern index.”

Among the statements that drew the strongest support: “A bigger more diverse workforce will lead to more economic growth (69 percent agreement); “Diverse workplaces and schools will help make American businesses more innovative and competitive (69 percent), and “The entry of new people into the American workforce will increase our tax base and help support our retiree population” (59 percent).”

Even more encouraging, the poll found that the public supports a new equity agenda designed to reduce racial and ethnic inequality. About 70 percent in the survey agreed with the statement that we should take “new steps to reduce racial and ethnic inequality in America through investments in areas like education, job training and infrastructure improvement.”

And about 60 percent agreed that we should invest “significantly more public funds to help close the gap in college graduation rates” between black and Latino students and white students.

Results in this survey and others show some remarkable changes in acceptance and approval of diversity within the so-called Millennial generation, those under 35.

In Minnesota, we can’t find any similarly specific recent statewide polling data on racial attitudes. But there’s plenty of reason to believe that the direction of public opinion is similarly positive, especially considering our distinctive history of progressive and even moralistic attitudes on race.

Closing opportunity gaps in Minneapolis schools emerged as one of the key issues in the recent city elections, despite the fact that city government has little formal responsibility for those outcomes.

Our state’s largest and most influential charitable foundations, along with its most prominent and responsible business leaders, are moving steadily toward a more conscious and explicit agenda for reducing disparities in employment and education outcomes.

Greater MSP, the impressive new coalition of business and civic groups that’s promoting the Twin Cities for business growth and expansion, recently adopted a mission statement that put a new emphasis on a “culturally connected” and equitably diverse workforce.

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