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Americans See Opportunities in Rising Diversity

A new CAP poll shows that Americans are more open to diversity and reducing inequality than the media and politics portray them to be.

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Demonstrators wave American flags as they march down Las Vegas Boulevard during an immigration rally, Wednesday, May 1, 2013, in Las Vegas, Nevada. A new CAP poll shows that Americans are more open to diversity than media and politics would lead us to believe. (AP/JulieJacobson)
Demonstrators wave American flags as they march down Las Vegas Boulevard during an immigration rally, Wednesday, May 1, 2013, in Las Vegas, Nevada. A new CAP poll shows that Americans are more open to diversity than media and politics would lead us to believe. (AP/JulieJacobson)

The United States lags behind other countries in a number of areas, such as infant mortality and educational achievement, but there is one place where we can claim to lead the way: We are rapidly becoming a more diverse nation. Today, more than half of the babies born in the United States are children of color, and, according to the Census Bureau, our population will have no ethnic or racial majority by 2043.

In many important ways, this is a good thing. A recent CAP and PolicyLink book, “All-In Nation: An America that Works for All,” spells out the benefits:

Our growing diverse population offers us advantages that other nations don’t have—specifically human capital, which is the greatest asset of any economy. … Diversity drives innovation, encourages entrepreneurship, and creates new markets. What’s more, our growing diverse communities can provide us an unparalleled advantage in an increasingly global economy.

In order to realize these benefits, however, we need to tackle the challenges that are linked to growing diversity in this country, which include the need to increase our investments in communities of color; improve the quality of education and training for our future workforce; encourage civic participation and leadership, especially among youth of color; and many others.

Whether we are able to meet these challenges will depend on public will—and that will depend on whether a critical mass of Americans understands the benefits a more diverse nation will bring us all, as well as whether we are willing to invest in programs to help realize the benefits.

The good news is the answer to all these questions seems to be “Yes.”

According to a new CAP poll, 71 percent of Americans:

… are much more open to diversity and more supportive of steps to reduce racial inequalities than is commonly portrayed in politics and the media. Furthermore, Americans are more likely to see opportunities from rising diversity than they are to see challenges. They understand the problems associated with inequality in society and strongly support new steps and investments to reduce these inequalities and expand economic opportunities. Although differences remain between rising communities of color and whites in terms of openness to diversity and support for new policies to close remaining social gaps, many of these distinctions are more ideological in nature and less about race and ethnicity.

Specifically, the poll found that:

  • The typical American—whether white or nonwhite—thinks that communities of color comprise 49 percent of the population, whereas the actual number is 37 percent.
  • Americans are not overly anxious about rising diversity. On the whole, optimism about diversity’s opportunities outweighs worries about its negative impacts.
  • Openness to diversity varies by ethnicity and race. Whites tend to be less optimistic than people of color about the opportunities that diversity will bring but tend not to be negative about diversity, per se.
  • Younger people and those with more education are more open to rising diversity.
  • Americans say the greatest opportunities from rising diversity are more economic-growth potential and greater innovation and business competitiveness.
  • Americans say their greatest concerns about rising diversity are that there will be more demand on government services and not enough jobs to go around.
  • Americans support a policy agenda to reduce racial and ethnic inequality and support greater participation in the economy.

Despite these hopeful indicators, racial animosity is not a thing of the past, and clashes about rising diversity are far from over. Beyond that, institutional racism is deeply embedded in our nation’s history, politics, and social structures. In fact, conservative support for the recent government shutdown has historic ties to the politics of purity espoused by many Southern Republicans who deserted the Democratic Party over the issue of civil rights.

So while the polling data certainly need to be read within this larger context, they also give some cause for hope. We are a nation of immigrants, after all—a land where newcomers settled and where people from many countries arrived and made America their home. It could be that, deep in our DNA, most of us know this. It could also be that rising diversity has increased the chances that we are friends, neighbors, and workmates with people who do not look like us, making us less likely to see them as “others.”

Whatever the reasons, the forces of change seem to be wafting in a positive direction. With public support behind a strategic equity agenda, we can help make real the promise of a more perfect union—for us all.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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