Our recent Board of Education election broke new ground in a way few have recognized – Madhu Pai is the first Indian-American elected to public office in the towns of South Orange and Maplewood. Her election also follows the appointment in 2011 of Judge Sohail Mohammed, the first Indian-American New Jersey Superior Court Judge.
I worked on Madhu’s campaign because I believe that she is the most qualified person for the job and would bring enthusiasm and hard work to her public service. But I was also passionate about Madhu’s campaign because, in my view, she represents a new voice in the current conversation around race that dominates much of the local politics here.
When I first started reading up about our school system, I was surprised that virtually every document that the School District produces discusses Black and White, but no other racial group. I remember one particular night, thumbing through the Report on Equity and Excellence, almost desperately looking for a reference to anyone else.
I should state here that my children are mixed. They are a little less than half Filipino, a quarter Caucasian, and a little more than a quarter Chinese. I suppose that makes them mostly Asian, depending on whether you classify Filipinos as Asian or Hispanic / Latino. I sometimes wonder how they will define themselves as they grow up. Will they consider themselves “Hapa” – a person of mixed Asian descent – as I consider myself?
Here are a few facts from the 2010 census on the racial and ethnic makeup of New Jersey. Latinos are the largest minority group in New Jersey, and make up about 17.7% of the population. African-Americans are next, at 13.7% of the population. Asians are third with 8.3%. Then there are people of mixed race such as my family that make up 2.7% of the population.
These demographics represent a changing America and a changing New Jersey. For example, in the United States, the number of people identifying as Asian grew by 43% from 2000 to 2010. Also significant, the number of people identifying themselves as both Black and White grew 134% to 1.8 million.
As the New York Times reported in January 2011 in an article entitled "Black, White, Asian? More Young Americans Chose All of the Above", more and more young people are rejecting the notion that they must be bound by traditional racial classifications. Indeed, the emergence of a multi-ethnic America is a demographic trend that is sweeping over the country. And it’s changing our towns as well.
Take a look sometime at the professional and artistic classes in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where many new residents are coming from when they move to these towns. More and more often, people don't conform to old stereotypes. Here are just a few prominent examples: The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York is Indian-American (Preet Bahara). The Director of the Hayden Planetarium is African-American (Neil DeGrasse Tyson). The Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic is half-Asian (Alan Gilbert).
What should we take away from this? First, we must respect the historical relationship between Whites and Blacks, because that relationship is one of the defining issues in this Country. The recent killing of Trayvon Martin illustrated this in tragic ways. The achievement gap in schools between Whites and Blacks is also urgent because it strikes to the core of our belief in a fair and color-blind society. And I fully realize that, historically, the rule of one drop of African-American blood prevented many people from defining their own identities on their own terms.
At the same time, we need a more nuanced discussion of race. My personal belief is that we should celebrate and promote the richness and diversity of our backgrounds, but not let those backgrounds be used to divide us. I also believe that when Whites and Blacks say that we need to talk about race, they need to understand that there are other people in the room – people such as myself, people such as my children. Diversity means more than Black or White, and that will be increasingly true as we move forward in this Century.
I think we should be proud as a community that we elected Madhu. She worked incredibly hard on the campaign, was a great candidate, and is a wonderful person with smart ideas for our schools. I think that she, as well as Wayne and Jeff, are independent, thoughtful people who will strive to broaden the conversation. I believe they will look to include everyone, including my family, in that conversation. And because of that, I am very hopeful about the future.