Alan Jenkins is executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research, and advocacy organization with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America.
Over 100 million people of color now live in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau reported last week, one-third of our population and a new milestone in our nation’s diversity. Two important decisions currently facing our federal government will help determine whether that diversity continues to be one of America’s great strengths or is met with division and denial.
Any day now, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether voluntary school integration efforts by the communities of Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington violate the Constitution. At the same time, Congress is debating immigration reform legislation that will determine how we treat the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, as well as future generations of legal immigrants. In each case, government leaders should choose a future in which we move forward together toward community and shared prosperity.
In the Louisville and Seattle cases, those communities considered racial diversity as one factor in assigning students to neighborhood schools. The court is considering whether those modest efforts somehow violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the integrationist principles of Brown v. Board of Education .
While the court is considering specific policies, the underlying constitutional question is what, if anything, communities around the country can do to promote inclusion and prepare our kids for the future. Our nation’s schools are increasingly segregated by race, even as the nation itself becomes more diverse. More and more parents, teachers and community leaders are realizing that kids educated in segregated settings are simply unprepared to function in diverse workplaces, universities, and communities.
The cases are about local communities building schools that reflect our nation’s highest values, teaching our kids to live together, learn together and play together in an increasingly diverse world. The court should hold that carefully crafted policies of this kind are fully consistent with our Constitution, fulfilling the promise of Brown.
The immigration debate, in turn, is not only about the fate of individual immigrants. It’s about our nation’s moral and economic future. In fixing our broken immigration system, Congress has realized that it’s neither possible nor humane to deport 12 million people who’ve come here to pursue the American Dream. Integrating immigrants who work, pay taxes and learn English is in our national interest.
Just as important is creating a system for future immigration that’s fair, workable, and promises national unity instead of division. Guest worker proposals that would deny future immigrants human rights, family ties and a shot at becoming Americans violate that principle and should be rejected. At the same time, lawmakers should follow immigration reform with new policies that promote living wages, economic mobility and equal opportunity for all members of our society.
In each of these decisions, our government can embrace our nation’s founding values and a prosperous future, or it can stick its head in the constitutional and legislative sand. Diversity as strength is a profoundly American idea. It is embodied in our national credo—E Pluribus Unum, or, "From Many, One"—symbolizing both the resolve to form one nation from a collection of states and the determination to forge one unified country from people of different backgrounds and beliefs.
That vision, of course, has been thwarted by our history of slavery, disenfranchisement and poverty. But it has thrived when our policies reflect that we’re part of a common national enterprise, linked in our successes and challenges, and responsible to each other as well as to ourselves. That’s the choice facing our country’s leaders. History, common sense, and our national values should guide their decisions.