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Sneak Peek! Guest blog by Voices for Change Conference Keynote, Steve Phillips

Sneak Peek! Guest blog by Voices for Change Conference Keynote, Steve Phillips

To be [Black] in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.
-James Baldwin

If you’re in a rage all the time, what does that do to your blood pressure? What does it do to your health? I was talking to my own doctor recently about my blood pressure, which is higher than either of us would like, and he was running through the various medical treatment options to lower blood pressure when I asked him, “Isn’t it possible that this crazy election with the racist Trump campaign has me really stressed out? And couldn’t that explain my high pressure?” We set another appointment for after the election, and my fingers are crossed, but the whole experience has heightened my appreciation for the health impacts of America’s racial realities.

America is coming to the realization that we are going through a demographic revolution that has profound implications for government, non-profits, businesses, media, and academia. And it also has transformative implications for our public health. Fortunately, the transformation of the racial composition of our society also provides the potential political power to pass public policies to make life better for people of all racial and cultural backgrounds.

The 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act and Immigration and Nationality Act removed the race-based barriers to entry into the country and participation in its elections.The results have been transformative. The percentage of people of color in the population has grown from 12% in 1965 to 38% today, paving the path to the election of the country’s first African American president. Today, a majority - 51% - of America’s eligible voting population consists of progressive people of color and progressive whites, and that majority is growing every day. The demographic revolution that has unfolded in America since 1965 has created a New American Majority supportive of the goals of progressive public policy.

California offers an instructive example of how efforts to change public policy can be leveraged by aligning investments with the demographic revolution. People of color now comprise the majority of people in California, and multiple studies have shown that the residents of communities of color are more likely to live toxic waste dumps, breathe dirty air, eat unsafe and unhealthy food, and struggle to access quality health care.[1]

In 2006, California passed bipartisan legislation to fight global warming that was signed by the Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite broad agreement on the necessity of fighting climate change, the cap and trade formula developed by the state did little to address the conditions in California’s communities of color. From 2006 to 2010, the governor, legislature, and state bureaucracy failed to take meaningful action to tackle the environmental problems in disadvantaged communities.

During this time, California’s philanthropists were similarly stymied in efforts to foster change. Studies documenting the problem, convenings to “bring both sides together,” and other typical tools in the philanthropic arsenal were ineffective. What made the difference was expanding democracy. People of color – a majority of the population – comprised just 32% of California’s voters in 2006, but by 2010, that percentage had grown to nearly 40% of all voters.  That more representative electorate elevated both a new governor more responsive to communities of color and a legislative champion, State Senator Kevin de Leon, who was from a low-income community. This new electorate transformed the public policy landscape, making the elected leaders more responsive to the multiracial majority, and the legislature passed – and the governor signed – a “Polluter Pays” bill (SB 535) which required that 25% of the funds from the earlier cap and trade legislation go to disadvantaged communities in the form of funds for improved public transportation, housing, and energy efficiency.  In 2016, those funds will exceed $500 million, a sum that dwarves the amount of philanthropic dollars directed to inequities in those communities.[2]

The demographic revolution that has brought about a political transformation has also opened the door to a new public policy era. California is now a national leader on environmental issues. Much more is possible, and the state is limited only by the imagination of its leaders, not by the politics of moderate voters. We have the numbers now to make our biggest and boldest public policy aspirations a reality.

Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the author of “Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority” and the founder of Democracy in Color.

[1] Vien Truong, “Addressing Poverty and Pollution: California’s SB 535 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund,” 2014, Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, (accessed December 18, 2015)

[2] Ibid

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