Recent study indicates that racial differences matter less, but minorities still feel disadvantages.Americans are becoming more comfortable with living and working in proximity to people of races and cultures different from their own, and exposure to diversity may well be the key.

U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., cites his multicultural background as a factor in his ability to relate to many kinds of people.

The son of a Bangladeshi immigrant father from what was then India and an African-American mother, Clarke grew up with exposure to the ups and downs of various cultures.

"Diversity helps open minds and hearts," he said at a recent forum sponsored by the National Journal in Washington. Clarke's father was Muslim, his mother a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was raised Muslim and later became a Catholic. His Korean-born wife was adopted and raised by Jewish and Catholic parents.

"This totally affects my outlook," he said.

But a recent poll shows significantly different attitudes across race and cultural lines about how minorities are faring.

In a poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International for the National Journal, three-quarters of black and Hispanic respondents said, for example, that the country needs to make more changes to give racial minorities equal rights to whites. White respondents were about evenly split between saying the same thing and that the country has already done what's necessary to achieve equal rights.

The survey also found blacks and Hispanics more optimistic than whites in saying they have more opportunities than their parents did and that the two minority groups are more likely to say programs such as food stamps and Medicaid don't offer enough of a safety net for the needy.

Such differences of opinion were illustrated in the lively comments from a panel of members of Congress speaking at the same April 19 event hosted by the National Journal on "How demography shapes the national agenda," where the survey was released.

The session featured sparring among one Republican and two Democratic congressmen over how minorities are doing, how immigration-related concerns affect the country and how the coming elections will be affected by those issues.

Rep. Raul Labrador, a first-term Republican from Idaho, opened his remarks by describing feeling put out by a news show he'd watched that morning. On the show, a commentator was talking about the need to be more opportunities for people to get ahead in the world, he said.

"I thought, that's such bull....," Labrador said. "I'm sick and tired of people telling others, especially minorities ... (that) this country is not a fountain of opportunity. You can be anything you want to in this country; it's up to you."

As the program's moderator asked the panel why, half a century after the civil rights movement shook the country, race-based opportunity is still being discussed, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., jumped in, saying: "Because we've never discussed it."

"There is something that must be done when median income of whites is 20 times that of African-Americans and 18 times that of Hispanics," Cleaver said.

It's not that the country hasn't made progress when it comes to how people are treated based on their race, Cleaver added, noting the multiracial makeup of the participants in the program and that the president of the United States is of mixed race, having had an African immigrant father and a white mother.

"Issues of race ... have been diminished," he said, "but more work is needed."

Clarke, also in his first term in Congress, said he grew up in an environment where he saw two sides of the struggle facing poor minorities. His father came to the U.S. during the Depression.

"My dad came for the opportunities. He was willing to risk everything," Clarke said. But his mother, an African-American, had a different experience.

Clarke said that after his father died when he was 8, he watched as his mother "cleaned toilets and worked as a school crossing guard," and struggled to provide for them, while facing the racial discrimination common in Detroit in the 1940s-60s.

In his adult life, he said, he's experienced the range of ups and downs --- starting with winning a scholarship to Cornell University, then dropping out after his mother's death.

"I gave up hope at 23," Clarke said. He lost his scholarship and moved back to Detroit, where he wound up on food stamps.

"It was a part of culture of the neighborhood to be on food stamps," he said. "This wasn't the immigrant's attitude that would see every circumstance as an opportunity."

He pulled himself together, went back to Cornell and finished his fine arts degree, then went on to earn a law degree from Georgetown University.

He said the race-based attitudes that were part of his mother's struggles are changing, at least in part because of people being exposed to more diversity.

Cleaver noted that the growth of the Hispanic population in particular is affecting many states in unfamiliar ways. "Ten states wouldn't have had any population growth if not for Hispanics," he noted.

Participants in a second panel at the event included William H. Frey, senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution. He said the recent census showed more than 100 metropolitan areas at least doubled their percentage of Latinos in the last 10 years.

Paul Taylor, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, cited estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that predict 74 percent of the growth of the U.S. labor market will be among Hispanics. 

"That's where the population bulges are," he said. "The new workers will be the children of Hispanic immigrants who are coming in just as the baby boomers exit the job market."


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