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The Future Americans

March 18, 2001|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation

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.

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