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Race and Our Metropolitan Future

Manuel Pastor / Jul 01 2010

For Release Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mary NewsomAmerica is changing: we have a black president, increasing diversity in the ranks of the nation’s CEOs, and a new generation seemingly at ease with racial and other differences. And a lot more change is in the works: by 2042, the county will be majority-minority, by 2023 the majority of those under the age of 18 will be youth of color, and this year or next will the first (but not the last) in which the majority of births in the U.S. will be to black, Latino and Asian parents.

It’s enough to make pundits wax about a new “post-racial” era in which race and ethnicity are less salient as social and political categories. But despite what is surely a startling shift in attitudes (Tea Party undertones notwithstanding), the income gap between African Americans and Latinos on the one hand and whites on the other has remained stable since the mid-1970s, even as the recent wave of foreclosures has shattered the wealth of those homeowners, disproportionately of color, who came late to the housing boom.

So why, then, the “post-racial” appeal? Part of it, of course, stems from the hope that some of America’s thorniest problems — the residues of slavery, Jim Crow, and racially restrictive immigration laws — will just go away. Part of it is that race is difficult to talk about: whites with the best intentions worry that they will say the wrong thing while people of color resent it when they are seen through the sole prism of their skin and not their full identities.

Stepping in where only the brave (and perhaps the foolish) dare to tread, Angela Glover Blackwell, Stewart Kwoh, and I have just completed Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future. It’s actually an update — and a substantial one since the world has changed — from an earlier volume commissioned in 2001 by the American Assembly, a leadership forum originally founded by Dwight Eisenhower.

The title is intentional: we argue that too often, leaders seek the lowest common denominator, either in the politics of racial division or in securing agreement on only the broadest and vaguest statements about our common national interest. Instead, we suggest that we should seek the highest common ground — the place where principled disagreements and uncomfortable conversations lead to real breakthroughs on policy and politics.

That’s territory familiar to those who have sought to lead in America’s metropolitan areas. After all, the demographic change the nation will soon experience has already washed over many of our larger metros. And building bridges to create a shared regional identity between diverse communities — white and non-whites, cities and suburbs, business and labor — is just part of the job description for those forging new metropolitan coalitions.

The challenge we pose in this book, however, involves keeping race in that mix — not to create grievance and separation but rather to “get race up front to get it behind.” While the traditional argument has been that lifting up racial and ethnic differences could alienate white voters, the changing demographics mean that people of color also need to be “seen” in the conversations we have and the political signals we send. The risk of alienation, in short, needs to be balanced against the risk of “undermobilization”.

Moreover, race still matters. In a striking experiment just as the Iraq War was staring in 2003, researchers responded to Internet ads for apartments in Los Angeles County using names that sounded white, black or Arabic. Ninety percent of the white names were invited to visit and apply in person while only two-thirds of Arabic names received an invitation. The kicker: black names were even less favored.

But it’s not just the continuing possibility of direct discrimination. Race matters precisely because continuing racial and spatial disparities are key — although often unidentified and unexamined — elements in nearly every challenge our metro areas face.

Poor educational systems chasing away businesses? Addressing this requires that we specifically target African American and Latino outcomes to strengthen the quality of the future labor force. Neighborhood safety a concern? Part of the solution lies in reducing the criminalization of minority youth that traps them in the judicial system and promoting successful community-based reentry programs for those leaving prison. Immigrants triggering concerns by long-term residents? Calming local nerves requires an emphasis on how immigrants also revitalize distressed areas and the development of policies to promote faster immigrant integration. Climate change got you thinking about Smart Growth? Let’s be honest: to make it work, we need to address the underlying racial and class tensions that have promoted and maintained sprawl.

It is also from America’s metros that we are seeing some of the most innovative approaches to dealing with the civil rights issues of the 21st Century. Just think of how New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone is improving childhood education, of how Oakland’s Green for All is pioneering an equitable approach to a green economy, of how Chicago’s Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) is linking city and suburban residents to support immigrant integration.

It’s no surprise that these organizations and their metros are leading: for many of them, 2042 is already here. Our hope is that Uncommon Common Ground can build upon this regional wisdom and offer a solid foundation for advancing racial equity. The book includes a wealth of the latest data on racial attitudes, racial progress, and racial challenges as well as model solutions. Above all we hope that we offer a new model of conversation and clear-headed analysis that can help heal the wounds of the past and set a firmer agenda for a more inclusive America.

Manuel Pastor is a co-author of Uncommon Common Ground. For more information on the book, go to: columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Michael Duplantier
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Why the gratuitous cheap shot at the tea party “undertones”? That one stupid comment undercut everything else you were purporting to advance regarding the need for “common ground”.

  2. Posted July 3, 2010 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Fair or not, the Tea Party folks are being tagged with a certain amount of racism, as this study suggests.

    Good essay.