Racial Equity in America: It’s Not So Black and White

September 15, 2017 - (7 min read)

This is a co-authored post by Leon T. Andrews, Jr., director of NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative, and Kiara Aponte, NLC’s REAL intern.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest projection, by 2044 people of color will make up more than half of the U.S. population — meaning that in just 30 years non-Hispanic White Americans will no longer constitute a majority.

The Pew Research Center (PRC) projects that by 2060 the U.S. population will be about 43% White, 13% Black, 8% Asian, 6% Other, and a whopping 31% of the population will identify as Hispanic/Latino.

While the terms ‘Hispanic/Latino’ are intended to refer to ethnicity rather than race, many Latinos believe that their relation to race is one with more nuance. A survey conducted by the PRC finds that two-thirds of Hispanic adults say that being Latino is both part of their ethnic and racial background, suggesting that “Hispanics have a unique view of race that doesn’t necessarily fit within the official U.S. definitions.”

It’s not uncommon for Latinos to grow up confused and insecure in their identities without proper guidance. And with U.S. demographics shifting toward a larger percentage of Hispanics/Latinos, it is increasingly important to better understand ourselves and our neighbors, and to work toward equitable solutions and more inclusive communities.

During my own childhood in Northeast Ohio, I experienced bouts of both intense pride and profound shame in my Puerto Rican heritage. Much of my adolescence was filled with confusion and conflicting feelings about how to identify racially.

Between home and school, I was constantly being pulled between positive and negative feelings about my ethnicity; I was never quite secure in my identity. I was only able to develop a strong sense of self and consistent sense of pride in my diaspora after I discovered the power of cultural appreciation and celebration through food, music, art, and dance; all of which I had previously taken for granted.

After leaving my hometown of Lorain to spend most of the year in college, I realized that the festivals and events in my city were not something I’d find just anywhere. The annual Sacred Heart Festival, the Puerto Rican Parade and the International Festival were all reflections of the city’s history of immigration, steeped in years of Steel Mill and factory recruitment. The food, music and interactions I experienced growing up were celebrations of the city’s community and the contributions of its members.

It was only by accepting this that I learned to fully embrace both my individuality and my sense of latinidad, a term that Councilman Fabian Bedne of Nashville, Tennessee relates to “la patria grande”, or ‘the bigger homeland’.

These terms, as Councilman Bedne explains, refer to “a sense of shared destiny, a shared history in Latina America,” which he followed by emphasizing some of the complexities of Latino identity. As he said, “when I think of being Latino, I think of being a part of something bigger.” The feeling of being a part of something bigger, a sense of purpose, and perhaps most importantly a sense of belonging, is integral in shaping the way people view themselves and the world around them; especially at young, impressionable ages.

As Mayor Vazquez of Santa Monica once explained to me, “once you strip an individual of their culture and language, you really put them at a disadvantage, because your identity is worth so much in terms of growth”.

So how can cities address this and allow for a more equitable environment for Hispanics/Latinos? Here are a few paths for leadership:

Acknowledge the Black-White equity binary.

While Latinos can indeed identify as Black and/or White, many of them don’t fall so easily along the racial spectrum. By framing equity issues along a Black-White binary, policies miss the mark and fail to properly accommodate a large percentage of the U.S. population. As Mayor Vazquez expressed about his city, “That’s one of the frustrations we’ve had in Santa Monica: when you talk about race relations or ethnicity, the first thing people think about is Black and White—you leave out a huge piece without Latinos.”

Educate children — start young.

Raising a generation to grow up with healthy, productive views starts with education. Children and adolescents should have access to accurate and inclusive histories, taught by educators that reflect their city’s population. Not only is it disappointing and confusing to grow up with little to no reflections of yourself in the histories you learn in school and in the people who teach it, but it can also instill a sense of otherness at an early age.

By employing teachers that students can relate and look up to, cities can provide children with positive role models that reflect their own identities and experiences as they grow. By including Latin American history in high school curricula and educating Americans about their country’s history of immigration, we can also help combat uninformed stereotypes and harmful misperceptions early on.

To Latinos: be leaders—engage in the community.

As Mayor Vazquez said on Latino political participation, “Some of the problems we have is that we’re not engaging, we’re not getting active, and we’re not politicizing ourselves and we have to, because whether you like it or not, an apolitical person is in fact a political person… And if we’re not sitting at the table, we’re on the menu”.

While there are many other ways that cities can better accommodate their Latino populations, here are a couple examples of what some cities are already doing under the leadership of Hispanic/Latino local elected officials:

Creating & sustaining a dialogue.

Councilman Gabe Santos of Longmont, Colorado:

“We do our best to keep people engaged. We have what we call the ‘Belonging Revolution’ here in town. People walk every Sunday in the neighborhoods in Longmont, predominantly in poor, Hispanic communities. Each member of council has done this, and they talk to folks: ‘Hey, give us your perspective. What can we do?’ And what I’ve found is that those discussions (in English and in Spanish) are very informative and people feel like they are welcomed here in Longmont, whether they are undocumented or going through the process of naturalization.” In fact, El Comité was formed to assist these particular communities.

Integrating & diversifying communities.

Mayor Tony Vazquez of Santa Monica, California:

“One of the things that’s been really good since I’ve come on, is that we’ve been able to integrate our city. We’re broken up into 7 historical neighborhoods, and the Pico neighborhood historically had the highest concentration of Latinos and Mexicanos; but that’s changed in the last 30 years, it’s been kind of diversified across the city now. And this is not only in terms of where they live, but in terms of our services now; we seem to have [improved] our services to try to adjust to the needs and issues of Latinos that have been living in the city.”

Taking actions towards equity and inclusion for immigrants.

Councilman Fabian Bedne of Nashville, Tennessee:

“I think that immigrants have a set of needs that are different… my role in the council is to bring attention to those other needs and to see if they can be accommodated to allow for a truly inclusive system. Having been an immigrant myself, I really struggled when I first came to the U.S.; we don’t do much to support immigrants and help them successfully integrate. So I really look at my role in the council as finding those roadblocks that were put in place and trying to remove them.”

With the United States’ growing Latino population of both native born and immigrant citizens, we must learn about ourselves and each other, so that everyone in our communities is afforded the same opportunity to flourish—both personally and professionally. Only then will we continue to prosper as a nation.

Leon T. Andrews, Jr., is the Director of the Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative at the National League of Cities.




IMG_20170711_220524369.jpgKiara Aponte is a senior at Oberlin College and a former intern working with NLC’s Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) initiative.