Demographics May Not Be Destiny

The big demographic news in recent weeks is the so-called tipping point -- more non-white than white children were born from July 2010 to July 2011. Responses to this inevitable development include speculation about a commensurate shift in power to, and acquisition of leadership by, more immigrants and minorities. But demographics is not necessarily destiny.

Consider this recently published infographic, showing how poorly Congress reflects the socioeconomic, gender, religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the American public. Only 6 percent of those in Congress are Latino, but 16 percent of the country is Latino. And women are a paltry 17 percent of Congress, despite being 51 percent of the population.

The gap in representation exists in the private sector as well. At the same time that the number of immigrant entrepreneurs is growing, minority representation in the leadership of major corporations is sorely lacking. A 2010 survey conducted by the office of Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., found that minorities make up 15 percent of corporate boards, and 18 percent of corporate directors are women.

For the representation gap to be filled in Congress and on corporate boards, in local and state governments, and in nonprofit and philanthropic leadership ranks, we need intentional and dedicated efforts in three areas:

  • The acknowledgment and dismantling of the structural inequities that prevent women and minorities from participation in politics and leadership positions.
  • Cross-cultural coalition-building to ensure that a minority-majority nation is not simply a society of fractured groups competing with each other for power.
  • Discourse around the impact of losing our minority "identity" and the advantages and disadvantages that brings.

Drawing minorities to the polls, for example, and encouraging them to run for office is difficult in light of voter-suppression practices and the xenophobia that unnecessarily focuses on minority candidates as "the other."

Many states have passed legislation requiring voter identification that can be onerous for students, seniors, low-income people, and minorities. Furthermore, some states, including Maine, where voters have long been able to register on Election Day, are making voter registration more difficult.

First-time voters, many of whom are immigrants and minorities, are disproportionately affected by these laws. And when minorities surpass the obstacles to register, vote, and enter the political arena as candidates, they are repeatedly cast as foreigners, as this report from South Asian Americans Leading Together shows, in ways that hurt their ability to gain mainstream acceptance as legitimate representatives in government.

The growth in the minority population is fueled by a diverse immigrant population, who share an immigrant heritage and a desire for a better life for themselves and their children, among other things. But, in Asian-American communities alone, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity can create challenges to organizing and mobilization.

And in places like New York and California, where large Asian, Caribbean, Latino, and other immigrants live side by side, these communities will need to learn to work together to achieve electoral power, as they did in the redistricting process in New York.

Finally, when we are no longer minorities, what will that mean in the context of a minority-rights struggle? Although proportionate representation in boardrooms and on ballots is still decades away, identity as a minority is shifting with the changing demographics.

Even though we may not be able to use our identity as minorities to organize, the struggle for economic justice, for example, will be an important ongoing challenge that can unite us. Similarly, we need to engage in concerted efforts to change institutional practices that target minority youth, such as stop-and-frisk. Even as a majority, minorities will face significant obstacles to achieving the ever-elusive American dream.

I for one am not ready to accept that demographic shifts will naturally lead to a steady path of new corporate and political leaders, but I do hope that by 2040, when more than 50 percent of all Americans are from minority communities, we will have made strides in creating institutions that are more representative of, and responsive to, America's diverse and dynamic population. That will be the more important milestone to cross.

Sayu Bhojwani is the founding director of The New American Leaders Project. She has worked on immigrant integration in various capacities for more than 15 years.

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