How U.S. Communities Are Facing Racial Conversations Head On

As we turn into a multicultural society, more and more states in the South are experiencing significant demographic shifts and having to engage (or reengage) in a conversation about issues related to race and ethnicity.

North Carolina is a microcosm of what is happening at the national level, as it mirrors trends both in terms of racial shifts as well as generational gaps. It also offers a valuable lesson on multiracial coalitions coming together to have a necessary dialogue about diversity and its challenges and opportunities.

In 2010, Wake County in North Carolina found itself in a painful and bitter struggle to defend its school system's diversity program. That year, the school board ended the diversity policy that had been in place since 2000.

The program had received national acclaim as students' performance soared, particularly for African-American and Latino students. But in 2009, a newly elected bloc of school-board members advocated for "neighborhood schools," which would concentrate low-income students in low-income schools.

Civil-rights leaders, including the NAACP, came together with business, parents, and teachers in nonpartisan alliances to fight for the diversity policy and public education. The capstone event was a march in Raleigh, which included people of all ethnicities and ages as well as advocates for public education and economic development.

And together they won.

In 2011, candidates backed by supporters of integration and diversity were elected to four of the five contested school-board seats in Wake County. And the board chairman, who led the effort the end the diversity policy plan, was soundly defeated.

The Wake County story shows a community coming together to have a painful but necessary conversation about race, diversity, and integration, and in the process, engaging various communities to make important choices about its future and youth.

As communities from Virginia to California undergo similar demographic shifts, there are inevitably reactions — both positive and negative — to the changing racial composition of our country.

In fact, immigration policies and voter-identification laws being considered now are arguably a response to the uneasiness people feel about seeing their communities change.

But instead of considering laws that will have a detrimental impact on the communities that are growing the most, we should be thinking long term about what we can do to have more positive outcomes for these communities, given the fact that their success or failure will be ours to bear.

Evolving into a multicultural society, or a "world nation" as National Journal has dubbed it, no doubt will have its growing pains, but we should not wait any longer to get the conversation started about the impact, challenges and opportunities of demographic change.

For its part, Wake County, still struggles with closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. But the process this community went through shows a community taking the conversation about race and ethnicity head on. We need many more like it.

Vanessa Cárdenas is the director of Progress 2050, a project of American Progress that seeks to examine the implications of the demographic change for the future of our nation. Her work focuses on issues related to race and ethnicity, demographic change, Latinos in the U.S. and communications/ethnic media. She also oversees American Progress's communications work with ethnic media with a special focus on Spanish-language press.

The Center for American Progress is an independent nonpartisan educational institute dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action. We develop new policy ideas, critique the policy that stems from conservative values, challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter, and shape the national debate.