Last spring, The Evergreen State College erupted in protest, becoming one of the flashpoints of racial disparity in higher education. Often, the fault lines of social conflict are invisible to some, obvious to others. I, like many people, was surprised that Evergreen ended up as ground zero in the battle for racial equity in higher education. Yet others have watched issues of racial disparity smolder for years, noting that faculty hiring and curricula planning were out of synch with a rapidly diversifying student body.
Nearly one year later, what have we all learned about campus life, our communities and our nation?
In part, Evergreen’s unrest was a product of an ongoing demographic shift. Beyond the small world of academia, the racial and generational gap is growing. By 2044, the U.S. Census Bureau projects whites will no longer be the majority culture and people of color will become the majority. Compounding this racial gap, the split occurs across generational lines.
According to a study titled “Bridging the Racial Generation Gap” from the University of Southern California’s “Policy Link,” “America is in the midst of two dramatic demographic shifts: rising … (racial) diversity among our youngest, and rapid aging as the (predominantly white) baby boomers head into retirement.”
One strong indicator of the racial shift is the demography of K-12 public schools, where the enrollment of students of color has reached or passed the tipping point in many schools. On a parallel course, by the year 2044, people over 65 (of whom 75 percent are white) will outnumber people younger than 18 for the first time in U.S. history. This study posits that “these twin forces — the browning and graying of America” will define a racial generation gap.
The tension of these competing trends is already being felt. The predominantly white baby boomer generation that defined the last half of the 20th century is slowly, perhaps grudgingly, yielding to what the Pew Research Center’s annual report “Trend” calls the “more globalized, multi-racial country that the United States is becoming.”
A 2015 Los Angeles Times article titled “The New Racial Generation Gap” explores the tensions between older whites and younger students of color, suggesting it’s time to flip the script from the baby boomers adage of not trusting people over 30 to now distrust people over 50, concluding that “older, white Americans need to recognize diversity’s importance to the nation’s future, and once and for all realize that the 1960s are long gone.”
Small wonder that Evergreen’s well-intentioned older administrators had an apparent communication gap with its younger student body.
Across the country, school districts are starting to recognize these demographic shifts as well as the disparities that hobble the emerging generation of multi-racial students. In a groundbreaking study titled “Race to Equity, a Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County,” Wisconsin researchers examined the impacts of K-12 racial disparity in graduation rates, test scores and incarceration. Across the board, students and other young people of color experienced lower academic achievement and far higher rates of arrest and incarceration, revealing that Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, had the worst racial disparities of any city in the nation. Much like Evergreen, the liberal city of Madison had a tough reckoning.
As a white baby boomer who went to school in Madison, I recall my grade school classmates were overwhelmingly white. Now, when I take my elderly parents to the school to vote, I see teachers and staff who reflect the student body, which is more than 60 percent students of color.
In my family, I see that my white parents dote on great-grandchildren who represent this new generation of multi-racial children. These kids will grow up in a very different America than I did. Clearly, my parents’ votes on education funding will strongly impact their ability to succeed. And their academic achievement will strongly impact my generations’ social security. We are mutually interdependent.
Perhaps the question is not what we learned from the Evergreen protests as what we do. First comes the understanding, but it must be followed by action. We all stand to learn a great deal by how Evergreen evolves to provide a solid education for a new generation of students, because that will become the foundation for our shared future.
Anna Schlecht is a board member of Senior Services for South Sound and a member of the Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.