Race and 21st Century America

Senator Obama will give a major address today on race. Somehow this feels like one of those defining moments in a campaign, where a candidate must rise to a powerful challenge to his or her candidacy. Successful candidates seize this moments. Failed candidates don't.

For this campaign, and this candidate this issue of race is one of the defining issues of our times. In my recent essay On Obama, Race and the End of the Southern Strategy I talk about all the demographic changes happening in America today, and write:

Of all these great changes the one that may be most important today is the growth of what we call the "minority" population. When I was born in 1963 the country was almost 89 percent white, 10.5 percent African-American and less than 1 percent other. The racial construct of America was, and had been for over hundreds of years, a white-black, majority-minority construct, and for most of our history had been a pernicious and exploitive one. Of course the Civil Rights Movement (particularly the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act) began to change our understanding of race around the time of my birth, but it was the Immigration Act of 1965 that changed the face of America. That act changed who would enter America, reorienting our new immigrant pool from Europe, as it had been for over 300 years, to Latin America and Asia. And America changed.

As the chart below shows (click it for a larger version), today America is 66 percent white and 33 percent "minority". While the African-American population has grown a bit, most of that increase has come from the recent historic wave of Asian and Hispanic immigrants. In my half a lifetime the "minority" population in the United States has tripled. When I was born one of out ten people walking around America were non-white. Today it is one out of three.

I think it is safe to say that America is going through the most profound demographic transformation in its long history. If current trends continue, America will be majority minority in my lifetime or soon thereafter. In a single lifetime we will have gone from a country made up largely of white Europeans to one that looks much more like the rest of the world.

If Senator Obama becomes the Democratic nominee this profound change will become something we all begin to discuss openly. Today the nation is having a big conversation about this change - whether it understands it or not - through our ongoing debate over immigration. While this debate has seen some of the most awful racist rhetoric and imagery since the days of Willie Horton, what should leave us all optimistic is that only 15 percent of the country is truly alarmed about the new wave of immigrants arriving in America. Consistently about 60 percent of the country says we need to leave all the undocumenteds here, indicating a pragmatic acceptance of the changes happening around our people and their families. Once again the uncommon wisdom of the common people appears to be prevailing here, and it is my hope, perhaps my prayer, that if Obama is the nominee American can begin to have a healthy and constructive discussion of our new population rather than what we have seen to date.

Given our nation's shameful racial history, building a national narrative, and a politics, around these powerful new demographic realities is one of the most urgent governing challenges facing our nation's leaders at the dawn of this new century. As the nation changes, and becomes more "intolerant of intolerance," there simply is no way to lead this new America, at this time, in this century, without getting this defining development of our day right.

NDN has been at the forefront these past 3 years in pushing back on manifestations of the anarchronistic - and morally unacceptable - politics of racial resentment that defined American politics in the latter half of the 20th century, the era of the Southern Strategy. And I am proud of that to no end. But now the end of the conservative ascendency in 2006, the current debate over immigration, the emergence of the Democrat's historically diverse field in 2008 is giving the country a chance to redefine our national conversation about race, to move beyond an era of racism to an era that celebrates and embraces our diversity, and lives up to that powerful American prayer of "e pluribus unum."

As I wrote in my Obama and Race essay, redefining race is a prerequisite for any post-Southern Strategy progressive majority. Moving beyond an era of racial resentment is not just the right thing to do, but as I argue it is a necessity for progressives if they hope to build a durable governing majority in this much more racially diverse - and much more tolerant - America of the 21st century. Which is why the mixed signals on race and tolerance coming from the Clinton campaign is not just morally questionable, but also dangerous for the long-term interests of the progressive movement itself.

This is the challenge and moment Senator Obama faces today. To talk about what is universal rather than specific, to embrace the inspirational principles on which this great nation was founded, to help the nation move beyond a shameful period in its history, to make it clear that he believes that as a nation, and as a world that "we are all in this together." Let us hope that he seizes this important moment and helps usher in a new and better politics for our nation.

Update: The speech was simply amazing. Read it here. We will have video links in a bit. I remain deeply proud of Barack Obama, his courage, his eloquence and his abiding faith in us and this great nation.

Update II: Video of the speech is below: