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.

The next campaign

The 2014 election campaigns will give candidates in all political parties an opportunity to both follow these heartening trends in public opinion regarding race, and to lead the way in framing a positive equity agenda.

We are certain that angry denial of the importance of addressing disparities, or overt lack of regard for those on the wrong side of the gaps, increasingly will turn voters off.

Here are a few suggestions for championing race equity in 2014:

• Put race equity near the center of political strategy: As campaigns and themes are developed this winter, deeper conversations will be needed about the persistence of racial disparities. If candidates don’t even try to understand the systemic, institutional reasons for those disparities, they won’t have a feeling for policies and practices that need to change.

• Set statewide policy goals: An overarching goal for 75 percent of our young people to complete some kind of higher education would, of necessity, require much improved outcomes for kids of color. Setting goals forces politicians and policymakers to understand why the dropout rate varies among communities of color, to personally engage with families from those communities so they can see the systemic barriers, and to study best practices around the country to boost education success rates. Business interests generally support this goal-setting.

• Follow the lead of business on immigration reform: Minnesota’s largest business association, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, recently published a remarkable 60-page report explaining the economic value of immigrants. The report urges the state to consider shifting funding from existing economic development programs to help immigrants integrate, to encourage immigrant entrepreneurship, and to pay for immigrant job training and placement. The report calls for a “21st century perspective” on immigration, and it acknowledges that immigrants are not just workers but also entrepreneurs, consumers and a bridge to the global economy.

• Follow the lead of nonprofit, religious and labor groups on pay-and-benefit policy: Racial inequality has been greatly exacerbated by overall economic inequality and by 30 years of stagnant or reduced pay and benefits for low- and middle-income households. An increase in the minimum wage much closer to the widely accepted “living wage” standard, protection and enhancements of economic safety nets, and universal and affordable health care are all necessary for race equity, as well as for overall middle-class viability.

• Get advice from community-based insiders, ethnic development corporations and councils of color: Just as the business chambers weigh in on economic proposals and education policy during key debates at the State Capitol, so should politicians pay attention to those who truly understand the dynamics within cultural and ethnic communities. These include groups such as the Latino Economic Development Center, the African Development Corporation, and the Urban League. They are an underutilized resource for policy development.

The Organizing Apprenticeship Project, in particular, has led the way with a comprehensive menu of policy options, and it makes available several race equity tools and training to assist candidates and policymakers in developing their own agendas. The Minnesota Minority Education Partnership has developed research and community networks that frame race equity and excellence as a transformational model for schools, including reforms of discipline policies.

• • •

We are under no illusion that further progress will be easy. We don’t wish to sugarcoat or ignore the resentment and divisiveness that have always plagued our diverse and pluralistic society. But we take heart in the often-quoted wisdom that although the arc of history is long, it bends toward justice.

The political will is there for closing racial opportunity gaps. Candidates who ride history’s arc with courage and plausible solutions are likely to succeed. At the very least, history will regard them kindly.


Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a public-policy organization that seeks to reduce economic and racial inequality in Minnesota. Jennifer Godinez is associate director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership.