The coming wave of minority advancement

As the baby boom generation retires, new opportunities will arise for America's minorities. Jobs once held largely by white workers will become available to an ever more diverse workforce, raising the prospect of greater mobility for minorities. In his book, "Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance for a More Integrated America," published by Harvard University Press in September, Richard Alba argues that the social divide drawn along racial and ethnic lines could narrow sharply in coming decades. Alba is a distinguished professor of sociology at City University of New York

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It does seem an odd moment to think about the possibilities for minority mobility. The deep recession has made many Americans pessimistic. Yet we shouldn't allow ourselves to be blinded to the unusual opportunity that lies ahead to advance ethno-racial integration, especially because our future economic strength will depend on it.

This little-comprehended opportunity will arise from a massive and predictable demographic process during the next quarter century: the retirement of the baby boom. This group of Americans, born between 1946 and 1964, is mostly white, highly educated and concentrated in the best jobs. As the baby boomers leave the workforce between now and the early 2030s, when the last of them turn 70, the young Americans entering it will be much more diverse in ethno-racial terms.

The turnover in the labor market will set up the possibility for non-zero-sum mobility on a large scale, a period when blacks and Hispanics can advance without threatening the prospects that middle-class whites take for granted for themselves and their children. For there will not be enough whites coming into the labor force to replace the baby boomers, let alone take any new jobs that will be created.

It is not just that many young minorities will have the chance the advance; the economic health of the nation will depend on their doing so, since a major challenge will be replenishing the highly trained sectors of the work force. Other groups, such as new immigrants, may fill some of the need, but it seems highly unlikely that they could satisfy all of it, given the numbers involved. Any sound strategy for the nation's future must involve U.S.-born minority groups, a huge, underutilized human resource.

To implement such a strategy, we will have to address the gross educational inequalities that stand in the way. Currently, the college graduation rates of blacks and Hispanics are only half those of whites. The roots of these inequalities undoubtedly extend back into the early years of schooling. Remedying these problems will require much more public investment in education; it will help if we can see such steps as necessary for protecting the long-range economic position of the U.S.

The potential ramifications for minorities of non-zero-sum mobility are profound. We can understand them better by looking back to another period of social change: the mass assimilation of the so-called white ethnics, Irish Catholics and southern and eastern European Catholics and Jews, in the decades following World War II. On the eve of the war, these ethnics were still confined to the margins of the mainstream. Skepticism about their assimilability into the white population was prevalent, and their religions had long been suspect to white Protestants. By 1970, however, the lines of division were fading rapidly, and growing social integration, exemplified by increasing intermarriage, was evident.

These changes took place during a period of large-scale non-zero-sum-mobility, originating then in an extraordinary period of prosperity. The ethnics, it must be pointed out, benefited also from public investment in education, especially the expansion of state colleges and universities, which allowed groups like the Italians to catch up rapidly to mainstream educational norms.

Non-zero-sum mobility will not solve all of the nation's ethno-racial problems. Many very poor minority Americans will find the pathways upward inaccessible. However, when it comes to race relations, the nation's wound that most stubbornly resists healing, it is wise to remember Voltaire's famous caution that, "the best is the enemy of the good."

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 28, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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