A Dream Deferred

50 Voices for 50 Years Series

A Dream Deferred

By Jim Johnson


In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a future American society in which black children would no longer “be judged by the color of their skin but [rather] by the content of their character.” A society free of the debilitating effects of racial segregation and poverty where “little black boys and black girls [would] be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”  

America is far more diverse today than it was in 1963 when Dr. King shared his dream with a massive crowd of civil rights marchers from the steps of Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Moreover, a host of civil rights laws have been enacted to end the most virulent forms of racial discrimination that Dr. King chronicled so eloquently in his speech.

Reflecting on Dr. King’s dream of a more just and equitable society 50 years after an assassin’s bullet tragically cut short his life, I am convinced that he would be deeply troubled by the current plight of America’s nonwhite youth who are rapidly becoming the numerical majority in our nation’s public schools and, through no fault of their own, are increasingly faced with a “triple whammy of geographic disadvantages” in their educational pursuits.   

The daunting challenges that America’s nonwhite youth face are rooted in two colorful demographic processes that are dramatically transforming both the racial and ethnic complexion (the “browning” of America) and the age structure (the “graying” of America) of our communities. “Browning” is immigration-driven and “graying” is driven by the aging of the Baby Boomer generation and increasing longevity among our senior population.

Emblematic of the “browning” trend, U.S. census data reveal that people of color—Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and other nonwhite groups—accounted for 92% of U.S. net population growth between 2000 and 2016. The “graying” of the American population is driven principally by the aging of the predominantly white Baby Boomers—the 80 million people born between 1946 and 1964.  Boomers began turning 65 in 2011 and will continue to do so at the rate of 8,000 per day over the next 20 years.  Moreover, the average boomer who is turning 65 is projected to live another 18.7 years. At the same time, fertility rates are declining, especially among non-Hispanic whites, which means that a profound shift in the racial composition of the school age population is underway.    

Owing to these demographic shifts and a range of geo-political strategies aimed at constraining, isolating and/or reversing the “browning” of America, nonwhite youth are disproportionately concentrated in racial generation gap counties and majority-minority counties—which I call whammy #1. In racial generation gap counties, predominantly white, aging empty nesters make up the majority of the voting age population and the school age population is predominantly nonwhite.  Typically, because older adults usually vote in their own self-interests in electoral matters, there is inadequate political support for public education in these counties. In majority-minority counties, the adult and school age populations are both predominantly nonwhite.  Typically, due to a weak tax base, there is inadequate financial support for public education in these counties. 

At the same time, nonwhite youth are also highly concentrated in residential neighborhoods characterized by hyper-segregation—which I call whammy #2--and extreme poverty—which I call whammy #3.  In hyper-segregated neighborhoods, at least 60% of the population is non-white.  In extreme poverty neighborhoods, at least 25% and typically over 40% of the households have incomes below the poverty level. 

As Figure 1 shows, these triple whammy counties form an elongated, curvilinear cluster extending from roughly Washington, DC southward along the South Atlantic Seaboard to South Florida and then turn westward winding through the Deep South and the Southwest all the way to California.  There are also a few isolated clusters in the upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, which are mainly American Indian reservations. 

Figure 1


How many of America’s youth are affected by these whammies? The answer appears in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary Indicators of Exposure

Level of Exposure

Number of Youth

Percent Nonwhite

Triple Whammy

  9.8 million


Double Whammy

12.2 million


Single Whammy

20.0 million


No Whammy

32.1 million



An estimated 9.3 million of our nation’s youth are affected by all three of these overlapping whammies of geographic disadvantage. These are our most disadvantaged students and the group is 93% nonwhite. These students are at the greatest risk of falling through the cracks of our K-12 public education system and failing to acquire the requisite advanced skills to compete in the unsparing global economy of the 21st century.  

There is a second group of students whose situation is not quite as dire but their educational achievements are constrained by a double whammy of sorts—routine exposure to two of the three whammies--hyper-segregation and extreme poverty.   About 12 million of America’s youth are in this situation and this group is 81% nonwhite.

A third group of about 20 million students is hampered by a single whammy-- hyper-segregation or extreme poverty.  That group is 39 percent nonwhite and certainly deserves our attention. However, the investments required to improve their educational outcomes are not nearly as great as the resources required to address the educational needs of those exposed to two and all three whammies.   

About 40% of our nation’s youth—32 million--are not hampered by these constraints.  Nearly three-quarters of these students are white and 28% are non-white. They live in areas of concentrated affluence where the poverty rate is below 25% and there are lots of support for their education (see Figure 1).  But there is one caveat. Even in these areas of concentrated affluence, the nonwhite youth are either concentrated in racially isolated schools or under-represented in the college preparatory tracks in the “good” schools.

Nowhere perhaps is this triple whammy more apparent than in Shelby County, Tennessee, where Dr. King spent the final moments of his life standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.  Shelby County is a racial generation gap community. A significant proportion of the voters are aging empty-nesters who think they “do not have a dog in the K-12 education fight.” As noted previously, aging empty nesters typically vote self-interest in electoral matters--crime prevention, lower taxes, and retirement amenities--and are hesitant to embrace proposals to raise taxes to support public education.

In Shelby County, as Figure 2 shows, both hyper-racial segregation and extreme poverty are highly concentrated in the city of Memphis.  Beyond the city limits, there are a few high poverty neighborhoods and few mixed neighborhoods that are undergoing racial transition from non-Hispanic white-to-black.

Figure 2


Shelby County schools are 72% nonwhite and 28% white.  The population is highly segregated: 71% of the white children live in neighborhoods that are 60% or more non-Hispanic white and 71% of the nonwhite kids live in neighborhoods that are either predominantly non-white or mixed, that is, transitioning from white-to- nonwhite.  On top of this hyper-segregation, and further exacerbating matters, sharp economic disparities exist within the county: over half of the non-white children live in neighborhoods characterized by concentrated poverty (58%), while only 14% of white children reside in such neighborhoods.  Stated in a slightly different way, Shelby County’s concentrated poverty neighborhoods are 92% nonwhite (102,120 children) and 8% white (9,319 children).

Children from these concentrated poverty neighborhoods are Shelby County’s most vulnerable students.  Due to the strong correlation between segregation and poverty, schools where the free and reduced lunch counts are very high are probably the ones that deserve the most urgent attention.

If Dr. King were alive today, I believe he would assert that educating these young people is indeed a mission that is possible. However, given the documented uneasiness among non-Hispanic whites about the “browning” of America, I think he would further assert that it is important to frame their education challenges not solely as social or moral imperatives, but  also, and perhaps more importantly, as competitiveness issues for our nation in the highly volatile global economy of the 21st century.  He would note that in the years ahead these young people—the new majority--will have to propel our nation in the international marketplace.

Finally, I believe  Dr. King would say enhancing educational outcomes for our most vulnerable youth will not only improve the attractiveness of our nation as a place to live and do business; it also will go a long way toward reversing the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in American society by creating prosperity for all.

If Dr. King’s dream is to be fully realized in contemporary America, we must develop an education model that helps our most vulnerable children overcome the debilitating effects of both racial and economic isolation.  Most urgently, we must retool the education and training that public school administrators and teachers receive.  They must be better prepared to provide our most vulnerable children with the protection, affection, correction, and connections that research shows they need to excel in the classroom and beyond.   Because this type of enhanced education and training will require additional financial investments in the K-12 education system, it is a strategic imperative to convince aging empty nesters in the U.S. electorate who are driving the “graying” of America that they do have a dog in the K-12 education fight—it is called the future competitiveness of our nation.

Conquering these youth challenges will get us a little closer to realizing Dr. King’s dream.


About Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson is the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

Johnson’s center focuses on innovative approaches to revitalizing urban areas and on teaching government, community, and nonprofit leaders and managers to become more entrepreneurial and business-like in their operations and service delivery.  

Johnson is an expert on community and economic development, the effects of demographic changes on the U.S. workplace, interethnic minority conflict in advanced industrial societies, urban poverty and public policy, and workforce diversity issues.  

He is widely quoted in national media and appears on national network news programs.  Fast Company magazine named Johnson one of the “17…brightest thinkers and doers in the new world of work.” 

Johnson spent twelve years on the faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles, before coming to UNC-Chapel Hill.  He received a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina Central University, master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Ph.D. from Michigan State University.


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