Embrace Our Nation’s Diversity and Youth, Not Walls

Child Rights
Children of Immigrants
Federal Budget

It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. — Maya Angelou

Despite my growing up in one of the nation’s poorest cities and just yards from the U.S.-Mexico border, it has always been clear to me that, although El Paso may not be rich, it has a wealth of cultural and social diversity. That is El Paso’s strength.

El Paso is a place where Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim kids and white, Hispanic, black, and Native American kids attend public schools together, play on sports teams together, eat Tex-Mex, listen to all types of music, often speak a mix of English and Spanish (“Spanglish”), and never think any of that is a big deal. It is simply life on the border.

Although some of us were multi-generation El Pasoans, many came to the “Sun City” as first-generation immigrants and the rest of us had stories of how our ancestors came to the country fleeing oppression, tragedy, war, or poverty. Like many Americans, most of us had stories of how our ancestors looked toward this country as a Land of Opportunity and the “Paso del Norte” region as a place where cultures came together in a unique and powerful way. It was through our public schools that we learned about each other and much from each other, and we understood that knowledge made us all wiser, more tolerant, and open-minded.

Our learned understandings, tolerance, and open-mindedness are why Donald Trump’s rhetoric in describing immigrants from Mexico as being “criminals, drug, dealers, [and] rapists,” his call for building a “great, great wall on the southern border,” and his support for ending birthright citizenship are so deeply disturbing to many El Pasoans. Immigrants, whether legal or not, are members of our families, friends, co-workers, and valued members of the community.

The vast majority of El Pasoans understand that the economy in border communities is integrated and linked to that of their sister cities in Mexico. El Pasoans welcome and embrace the city’s diversity and the enrichment that varied cultures and people bring to the border region.

In fact, it is with great pride to the people of El Paso that Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) broke the color barrier in college basketball when an all-black starting lineup that included white and Hispanic kids on the roster defeated an all-white Kentucky team by a score of 72–65 to win the NCAA Basketball Championship on March 19, 1966. College basketball would never again be the same.

More and more communities, even those far from our borders, look more and more like El Paso. In fact, changes in demographics are rapidly changing not only communities, but states, and our country. It is a strength of America’s.

Diversity: A Major Factor in America’s Olympic Success

Fifty years after Texas Western broke the color barrier, the U.S. Olympic team put our nation’s incredible diversity on display for the world to see, as the United States won more medals than any other nation by a wide margin. The United States won 46 gold medals and 121 overall medals (compared to 27 gold medals for Great Britain and 70 overall medals for China) and did so with athletes representing an array of racial, ethnic, and cultural identities, including athlete Ashton Eaton who won the men’s decathlon, and a team of African-American (Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas), Hispanic (Laurie Hernandez), and white (Aly Raisman and Madison Kocian) young women who displayed incredible artistry and strength to win nine medals in women’s gymnastics — often by wide margins.

The whole world witnessed how America’s diversity makes us stronger and faster than anyone else, and with special thanks to the passage of Title IX 44 years ago, U.S.A.’s women athletes dominated the Olympics in many sports. As a nation, we still have a way to go, but the systemic tearing down of racial and gender barriers and our historical embrace of immigrants is what has made America great — at least in these Olympic games.

Furthermore, over 48 foreign-born athletes competed for Team U.S.A. and the others all had stories of family members immigrating to this country, including swimming gold medal winners Michael Phelps (Irish, German, Scottish, Welsh, and English descent) and Katie Ledecky (Irish and Czechoslovakian descent).

Having grown up in El Paso, it comes as no surprise to me that our diversity and embrace of immigrants are major factors in our nation’s success. Donald Trump’s desire, however, to wall off the border and his campaign narrativethat “we don’t win anymore,” is the opposite of what millions of us know to be true.

The fact is Team U.S.A. won so may times that Alex Goldstein mocked Trump by saying, “You’d think Donald Trump would love the Olympics: The flag-waving pageantry, the pure, unbridled patriotism — and, my god, the winning. So much winning that you almost get tired of the winning.”

American Ibtihaj Muhammad added her name to the record books by becoming the first athlete to compete in the Olympics in a hijab and earned the bronze medal for the United States in fencing. Muhammad told CNN’s Chris Cuomo:

This has been a beautiful experience. This is the America that I know and I love. The America that is inclusive, that is accepting and encompasses people from all walks of life.

Diversity: A Major Factor in America’s Economic Success

As Americans, we can all be proud of the performance of our Olympic team. But this is not to say Americans should embrace diversity just for sports. Nor do we. We embrace diversity for economic, cultural, and social reasons as well.

In Silicon Valley, 37.4 percent of its residents are foreign born and, according to the 2016 Silicon Valley Index, that figure rises to 74 percent for 25–44 year-old computer and mathematical workers in the region. Over half of Silicon Valley’s population over age 5 speaks a language other than exclusively English at home. As the report explains:

The region has benefited significantly from the entrepreneurial spirit of people drawn to Silicon Valley from around the country and the world. Historically, immigrants have contributed considerably to innovation and job creation in the region, state and nation. Maintaining and increasing these flows, combined with efforts to integrate immigrants into our communities, will likely improve the region’s potential for global competitiveness.

But, this is not just a Silicon Valley phenomenon. Our nation’s largest cities and economic engines, such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C., are places of great diversity and to which people from across the country and the world conduct business in and affirmatively move to. These cities are vibrant places of innovation and economic growth for our country. They are places that draw tourists from around the world.

Yet, despite all the strengths that diversity brings, there remains a strong undercurrent of opposition in this country to diversity, greater tolerance, immigrants, and the blending of cultures and heritages. Such opponents, such as white nationalist Jared Taylor and Thomas Sowell, are fearful or distrustful of diversity and argue that it threatens America.

This fear and loathing is personified by some of the supporters we have seen at Donald Trump rallies. They support Trump’s call for “building a wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border, agree with calls to deport all immigrants living in the United States illegally, and echo some of Trump’s views on women, race, people with disabilities, and religious intolerance.

Americans Reject Anti-Immigrant Policies

And yet, it is important to highlight that a recent Gallup poll indicates that most Americans, including white voters, reject many of these policies and positions. As an example, on the issue of immigration, Gallup’s July 2016 poll found:

Two-thirds of Americans oppose immigration plans advocated by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deporting immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. In contrast, 84% favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the U.S., a plan backed by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The findings are consistent across racial lines. As Gallup reports:

. . .most whites oppose these proposals — 59% oppose the U.S.-Mexico border wall, and 62% oppose deporting all illegal immigrants.

Fewer than one in five blacks and Hispanics favor the construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and fewer than one in four favor deporting illegal immigrants.

Blacks (84%) and whites (82%) show similar strong support for a path to citizenship, with Hispanics even higher, at 92%.

Furthermore, in a Gallup analysis of the responses of 87,000 Americans polled over the past year, the report’s author, senior economist Jonathan Rothwell, told CNN:

Support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates, far from the Mexican border, and in neighborhoods that stand out. . .for being white, segregated enclaves with little exposure to blacks, Asians and Hispanics.

Implications of the Racial Generation Gap to Our Children

This is consistent with findings by economist William H. Frey, who authored the Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking Americaand wrote in an Op-Ed for CNN:

America’s ongoing diversity explosion should be greeted with optimism because of the opportunities it presents for revitalizing our country, energizing our labor force and providing greater connectivity to the global economy. But there is a hidden danger lurking in the form of an emerging generation gap with strong racial overtones that, left unchecked, could become a significant obstacle to progress.

This has profound public policy and electoral implications for our nation’s children and youth. As Frey points out, a majority of children under age 6 are majority-minority and this next generation is far more diverse than previous generations. Consequently, he writes:

Today, the nation’s growing racially diverse younger population depends upon the country’s mostly white baby boomers and seniors for financial and political support of educational investments, a social safety net and health care. But not too far down the road, the latter group will need the support of the former, as those young people enter a labor force that will finance Social Security and Medicare.

This generational co-dependency is not being discussed because of the separate audiences and issues associated with each party’s candidates.

There are, in fact, legitimate policies that can be advanced by both parties to foster success among America’s next highly diverse generation. Yet instead of addressing those, we appear headed toward a general election with candidates talking past each other and fueling potentially dangerous divisions.

Child advocates and foundations that are interested in addressing inequality and race equity must be mindful of these demographic trends and address the challenges they create. If we want the next generation to be able to compete in a global economy and our country to continue to thrive, then we must be investing in children.

In an analysis by First Focus, we found that the one-third of states with the worst outcomes for child well-being in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s (AECF) KIDS COUNT Data Book were not only poor but also more likely to provide weak effort in terms of financing their educational system. States with poor outcomes for children were 51 percent more likely to receive an F in the Education Law Center’s “Education Effort Index” than in other states, which means those states were often poorer but also didn’t make children a priority with even the resources they had.

Even worse, the one-third of states that Frey identifies as having the largest racial generation gap (i.e., the gap between the percentage of senior citizens who are white versus children of color) provide far less funding effort to their schools than the rest of the country.

Source: William H. Frey

In fact, the states with a high racial generation gap were 224 percent more likely to receive an F in the Education Law Center’s “Education Effort Index” than in the remaining states.

These children, who are increasingly Hispanic, African-American or Asian, are our future. However, in certain important states, they are not receiving the support they need to be successful from a growing white senior citizen population. Child advocates must overcome a body of research and polling data that indicates older voters are strong advocates for programs of importance to them, including Social Security and Medicare, but provide far weaker levels of support for specific children’s issues.

Is Arizona a Precursor of Problems for Children?

Arizona exemplifies this problem, as it ranks 45thin overall child well-being in the AECF KIDS COUNT’s analysis and has the highest racial generation gap in the country.

Cronkite News reporter Kristen Hwang adds:

The demographic shift is most obvious in state schools, where minorities made up about 59 percent of the student body in the 2013–2014 academic year, according to data from the Arizona Department of Education. Hispanic students accounted for 44 percent of the student body that year.

On a number of issues of importance to children, the state legislature in Arizona, which is disproportionately made up of older white males, has proven to be mostly hostile in terms of providing support to its rapidly growing population of racially diverse children. William Hart, a senior policy analyst with the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, explains:

If increasingly the ranks of students in Arizona’s public schools are individuals who do not look like the legislators and the other leaders in the state, there’s a real danger that they’ll be increasingly neglected.

As examples of problems this poses for children in Arizona:

Consequently, Frey has questioned:

Is Arizona. . .the precursor of things to come elsewhere? To the extent that racial and ethnic conflict underpins these developments in the Grand Canyon State, there is reason to be wary.

As a nation, we have a choice to make. If Arizona is the precursor of things to come elsewhere, our children will be put increasingly at risk.

Frey adds:

Investing in the success of today’s diverse youth is critical for the entire nation, which needs a productive labor force and its attendant contributions to Medicare, Social Security and other programs.

The baby boomers in particular need to hear the message. Now in their 50s and 60s, too many of them are more concerned with lowering their taxes than investing in the younger generation. . . And it has been shown that those states with the largest gains in minority children, but mostly white seniors — including Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona — rank among the lowest third of states on a measure of child well-being that includes education, health and other areas in which state government programs can assist.

“Walls Do Not Work”

If we are concerned about our nation’s future, we must embrace its growing diversity rather than spending billions of dollars building walls in communities that do not want them. How have we not learned the historical lessons of the Berlin Wall or in Northern Ireland?

Last summer, I visited Northern Ireland with my daughter and walked along the “peace walls” that divide Protestants and Catholics in Belfast. Having grown up in El Paso where people of different religions mix all the time, it was unfathomable for me to see this divide.

The words of Ira Socol captured how it felt:

If you walk the “peace walls” of Belfast you can smell the failure. The failure of community, of leadership, of religion, of humanity. It is all written beneath the grubby graffiti on the cold concrete that long ago replaced the simpler fences, and then began to climb higher. Because once you build a wall, you quickly discover that it cannot truly be high enough.

Socol adds:

Walls do not work. Walls are proof only of the fact that you have run out of ideas. It does not matter if the intent is to keep people in (Berlin), keep people out (the U.S.-Mexico Border), or keep people apart (the north of Ireland or Palestine). Behind every wall anger and frustration build and resentment festers and dangerous myths grow. Humans do not like boxes unless they are free to go in and out. Of this there is no doubt. And humans separated by walls simply will not learn to get along. This is also true.

We should not be spending billions of dollars building walls that the people along the U.S.-Mexico border oppose by wide margins. As Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) said to the Dallas Morning News, “. . .when you live here and you know how interconnected we are and you know friends, or have family on both sides of the border, it seems ridiculous at best and, at worst, it seems like something that is shameful and embarrassing.”

Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) adds, “How can we grow economically if we shut our borders and build ‘fortress America’? . . . It’s far easier to talk about those who lost out [because of trade] than those who won.”

Invest in Our Nation’s Children

Rather than wasting billions on a “yuge” wall, Americans should push for our nation’s federal, state, and local policymakers commit to making children a priority in budget and policy decisions. Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor and director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) at the University of Southern California, says:

When you think about how it is impermissible to talk about touching Social Security or Medicare, but it’s okay to talk about shredding spending for education, that’s generational warfare. We need to bring people together across geographies and generations, create bridges across race and place.

In an interview with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Lisa Hamilton, Pastor adds:

Unless we’re making the investments to make sure that that younger generation is productive and not over incarcerated, it’s working at full speed and not threatened by deportation, we’re not going to be able to have a thriving American economy moving forward.

As policymakers make decisions, it would make a world of difference if they would commit to even asking and answering this one simple question: “Is it good for the children?”

Kansas City Partnership for Children


Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on September 6, 2016.