The Future Americans

By Gregory Rodriguez
Irvine Senior Fellow

Los Angeles Times
March 18, 2001

Finally acknowledging the rising trend of intermarriage, particularly in the West and among the young, last year the Census Bureau allowed Americans to check more than one box when responding to its question on race. Relatively few respondents--2.4%--took advantage of the multiracial option. But those who did have changed forever the way we look at race in America. The 7 million, largely youthful generation of multiracial Americans, half of whom are under 18, herald the beginning of the end of multiculturalism.

The census has been collecting data on race and ethnicity in America since 1790, and the country's ever-changing ethnic composition and shifting political moods have been reflected in the questions it poses. In 1850, a growing national awareness of immigration led census takers to ask respondents about their place of birth and that of their parents. Forty years later, a heightened interest in miscegenation spurred census officials to record the "exact" proportion of African blood in black Americans.

Before the changes in last year's census questionnaire, the federal government had refused to recognize multiracial Americans, the living and breathing solutions to racial tensions. In the 1970s, it standardized racial and ethnic categories to streamline data used to monitor and enforce civil rights. Thereafter, Americans were urged to choose one of four discrete, mutually exclusive racial categories and to mark whether or not they were ethnically Hispanic.

Fearing that the new multiracial option would diminish their constituencies and complicate the task of monitoring discrimination, prominent minority advocacy groups lobbied hard against it. But the logic of the one ethnic and four racial categories has withered in a melting-pot nation. In the early 1990s, the standard classifications came under fire from a growing number of Americans who believed that the bare-bones options on the census questionnaire did not reflect the country's demographic reality.

While most Americans still chose only one box last year, the government's official recognition of hybridity has not only muddled the statistical portrait of the nation, it has also undermined the popular belief that race and culture are immutable characteristics. Racial data in the United States now resemble religion statistics in Japan, where 186 million souls are counted as members of various faiths even though there are 121 million people in the country. No longer will U.S. racial statistics add up to 100%.

Indeed, the 2000 census is an object lesson in the fluid nature of ethnicity and race. Accustomed to having to choose one background or the other, Americans can begin to feel more comfortable defining their heritages in more complex ways. Given that the multiracial tend to be young, demographers expect their ranks to grow quickly over the next few decades. Yet, the census only hints at the broader demographic trends reshaping America. One hundred years from now, single-ancestry Americans will still predominate, but the more people who cross ancestral lines, the less meaning contemporary racial and ethnic categories will have.

Meantime, America's first group snapshot of the 21st century encourages us to focus less on our ancestries and more on the continuing creation of our future heritage. Newspaper headlines have announced the nation's demographic heterogeneity as if it were a new phenomenon. But diversity has almost always been a constant in American life. From its beginning, the American nation has been characterized by rapid population growth, movement and mixing. While English immigrants initially comprised the vast majority of European settlers in the American colonies, by 1680, Scottish, Scots-Irish, French, German and Swiss newcomers made up three-fourths of all Europeans arriving on these shores. In the decade before American independence, 30% of New Englanders came from outside England. In the heavily German colony of Pennsylvania, English Americans were less than one-third of the population. The southern colonies were equally heterogeneous, though for different reasons. In the late 18th century, African slaves made up the region's single largest group. America's unprecedented diversity has always been the source of its greatest promise, as well as its most profound pain.

Multiculturalism, the ideology that promotes the permanent coexistence of separate but equal cultures, gained currency at a time when immigrants made up the smallest percentage of the population in U.S. history. In 1970, only 4.7% of Americans were foreign-born. For that brief and anomalous moment, five decades after mass European immigration had been legislated to a halt, Americans regretted the loss of their ethnic roots and lamented the spiritual costs of assimilation. Although spurred by a resurgent black nationalism, other racial and ethnic minorities, including white ethnics of European ancestry, began embracing multiculturalism. The once-dominant melting-pot paradigm, which held that America was a crucible that melded Old World ethnics into new Americans, was gradually replaced by the notion that newcomers could--and should--maintain their distinct cultural attributes indefinitely.

But the problem with the melting-pot standard was not that it was culturally repressive. Indeed, the melting pot, which envisioned different ethnic groups projecting some of their distinctiveness onto American culture at large, was far less coercive than the Anglo-conformity model of assimilation that it replaced early in the 20th century. The flaw in the melting-pot paradigm was its inherent racialism, which excluded non-European ethnic groups from fully participating in the fusion that produced a "new breed" of Americans.

Ironically, a similar brand of racial segregation informs multiculturalism. The strong presumption that Latin Americans and Asians, who together make up 75% of post-1965 immigrants, constitute permanently separate, mutually exclusive and culturally isolated national "communities" has its origins in America's segregationist past. While multiculturalism has promoted a healthy appreciation for difference, it has also implicitly encouraged separation.

The newly released census data will not so much resurrect the melting-pot concept as broaden it to include cross-racial and not only white-ethnic mixing. The new statistics indicate that Latinos and Asians, the country's two fastest-growing categories, are fueling much of the upward trend in intermarriage. Latinos are three times more likely than non-Latinos to claim mixed racial ancestry.

Five decades after the end of legal segregation in America, younger African Americans are considerably more likely than their elders to claim mixed heritage. A recent study from the Population Research Center in Portland, Ore., projects that the intermarriage rate of American blacks will climb precipitously throughout this century, to a point at which 37% of American blacks will claim mixed ancestry by 2100. By then, more than 40% of Asian Americans will be mixed. Most remarkably, however, by 2100 the number of Latinos claiming multiple ancestries will be more than two times greater than the number claiming a single background.

Will the birth of the multiracial American signify the end of divisiveness in America? Probably not. But it does suggest that we will experience a renewed sense of a common national destiny even as we discover new, and revive old ways, to discriminate against each other.

Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times

Top of Article
Other articles by Gregory Rodriguez
Printable Article
E-Mail This Article