Stephanie, Cyarah, Sam, Adedoke, Gifty, Ola, Justin, Christian, and Lovanie are a small sample of the students who entered college in the fall of 2015. Their names reflect the currents and cross currents of migration, history, aspirations, and dreams. Some came from families with deep roots in the United States; others proudly proclaimed themselves first generation. In statements composed to introduce themselves to others in their university’s social justice learning community, a few made note of their communities of faith, while others paid homage to family and friends who inspired their life choices. In moving prose, they spoke of premature births, early deaths, and personal struggles. Passionately, they talked of what they wanted to become, the dreams they had for themselves, their families, and their communities. Lovanie Pomplilus echoed many of her classmates when she wrote:
I am the youngest of four children. I am also the only one born in America out of all of my siblings. My parents are from Haiti and they do not speak much English. Throughout my younger years my parents only spoke Creole to me, so when I started school I did not speak or understand English. As a result I took an ESL class, which I enjoyed. After one year of ESL I was able to take regular classes. All my life I had to work really hard in school because I did not receive help at home with my school work.
Like others in her cohort, she imagined a future that she would shape: “I work really hard for the things I want in life, because quitting is never the answer. Although the world we live in makes it easy to fail and hard to become successful, [I] will refuse to let failure consume my life. So I leave you with a quote so dear to me, ‘Your future depends on what you do today’— Mahatma Gandhi.”
Lovanie’s classmate Christian overcame other challenges to find himself among the first- year students. He was quick to remind readers that a person’s outside may mask struggles and demons competing for attention internally. Adolescence, regardless of background, can be difficult enough, but in this case, self-loathing, identity struggles, and social alienation certainly exacerbate the movement from child to teenager to adult. He wrote:
Growing up, I struggled with questions of identity. From my picture, you’ll see that I’m a light-skinned, red haired, male. I will tell you, however, that I am a Latino queer. As a child, I saw myself as a white, cis- male. Unknowingly, I had engaged in self- negation, and self- hatred. I hated my culture. I hated speaking anything other than English. I hated eating anything other than hotdogs and hamburgers. As I matured, I came to understand my familial heritage, but I continued to struggle with how this implicated the way in which I saw myself. Engaging in critical work, I learned to affirm myself and love those around me, which is an ethos I wish to one day teach along with the aspirations, goals, and dreams of those who fight, relentlessly, for true justice for all.
Christian and Lovanie speak for themselves, but they also exemplify current and future generations of Americans who complicate old notions of diversity and influence how we speak about it. To see them as only black, white, or Latino is to oversimplify how they entered and enter the world. Color, gender, gender identity, and family ties to another land, language, or cuisine mingle with age, race, geography, class, religion, sexuality, and birth order to give form and substance to the lives they are shaping.
Christian and Lovanie attend Rutgers University–Newark, an urban campus populated by students from a wide variety of backgrounds. They applied for college in the age of the Big Test or SAT, an assessment that determines the fates of millions annually. This is an era when educational attainment increasingly sorts people into poverty or relative wealth. Yet their stories reflect the hopefulness of those who have been presented with opportunity. They have come of age at a time dominated by calls to educate more, not less, of our talent pool. They are hopeful, too, about the possibilities for building community out of difference as they progress through pathways of inclusion.
The diversification of American life and its institutions can produce positive and negative reactions. Demographers such as William Frey predict that the United States will have a nonwhite majority by midcentury. Demographic transition, some assume, will drive change. The old categories of “minority” and “majority” will evolve, if not disappear, the optimists trumpet. Yet at the same time, and as the foregoing examples suggest, this very heterogeneity has the potential to compromise the ambitions of the American democratic project. As the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni described, there is a real worry that heightened difference will exacerbate “sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, and corrosive polarization.”
Aiming to be balanced, informed, and at times edgy and pointed, this series seeks to force even the most ardent skeptic and most devoted proponent of diversity to pause and consider: what are our shared compelling interests as a nation and a civil society? In the law, the idea of “compelling interests” captures those reasons that the state may limit or abridge what are otherwise recognized as protected rights. The state’s compelling interest, for instance, in providing equal protection under the law justifies limiting the rights of employers, landlords, and public accommodations in order to achieve nondiscrimination. Yet we might move beyond the legal technicalities to take a more expansive view of the idea of compelling interests. As a society, we share a compelling interest in our constant need to balance the individual’s right to escape unwanted state interference against the state’s interest in protecting individuals from unfair and unconstitutional treatment. This series seeks to shape this formulation by further asking: Can we ensure a healthy and vibrant democracy without carefully aligning guarantees of civil and human rights, mechanisms for civic connection, and pathways for economic opportunity? Ultimately, we wonder how we advance democracy if we limit the numbers who have reason to believe they have a fruitful stake in its future. Is the perceived legitimacy of American institutions—from those that educate to those that adjudicate, from those that promulgate free expression to those that safeguard our security—at risk when so many are left behind in the “land of opportunity”? For us, issues of fairness and inclusion are themselves a matter of compelling interest.
Accordingly, we ask a number of timely and interlocking questions, beginning with: Is diversity an opportunity for growth or a constraint on prosperity? Is diversity in institutions a goal worth pursuing or a condition to be managed? What happened to our aspirations for finding common cause, despite observable difference, for e pluribus unum? Are the hopes of sustaining a prosperous society upended if successive waves of advancement leave scores abandoned and neglected on the shoals?
Efforts to craft broader social and economic inclusion are not new, to be sure. A little more than sixty years ago the country set about dismantling “separate but equal” with the hope of eliminating racially segregated schooling. Just over fifty years ago the nation launched a “War on Poverty” to arrest and correct perceptible inequality. Yet as we pass the half-century mark of this “war,” we face escalating, not diminishing, inequality. And six decades after the outlawing of separate but equal, more rather than fewer schools and neighborhoods are segregated, especially in our economically stagnating urban centers. We are left to ask: Have we abandoned our commitment to equal opportunity for all? As the faces, faith traditions, native languages, and social traditions of our neighbors continue to change, gated communities, ever-higher incarceration rates for some youth, and other forms of separation raise the question: Why do we fear the difference in our midst? Could the difference in our midst perhaps rather be the key to our sustained future? The essays in this inaugural volume, as well as the volumes to follow, confront these questions while also probing how we define our shared compelling interests.
This post was excerpted and adapted from Nancy Cantor and Earl Lewis’ introductory essay in Our Compelling Interests (Princeton University Press, 2016).