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Where the interracials may take us

Of all Americans, they represent the best opportunity to end identity politics and point America back to its tradition of individualism.

September 21, 2010|By Eli Steele

We may be in the midst of an interracial baby boom. A recent Pew Research Center study reported that interracial marriages rose from 6.7% in 1980 to a record 14.6% in 2008. If these marriages produce children at the national average, one out of seven Americans could claim two or more races. In Western states where interracial marriage is more common, the ratio rises to nearly one out of four.

The day will arrive when this interracial generation reaches political consciousness and finds itself at odds with America's divisive identity politics. Of all Americans, they represent the best opportunity to end these politics and point America back to its tradition of individualism.

Most minorities today fall conveniently within categories such as African American, Chinese American or Mexican American. These labels arose during an era of political correctness that literally placed race, ethnicity or religion before national identity. Since the 1960s, minorities have found in their racial identity a preferential gateway into public and private institutions.

Will such identity politics survive the interracial baby boom? Will new categories arise for the African German American or Chinese Latino American? Will a critical mass of interracials become an eclectic race in their own right? Or will they bypass the labels and embrace individualism?

These questions await my children. The birth of my son two years ago, and my daughter four months ago, marks the third interracial generation in my family. At first glance, their names — Shelby Jack Steele and June Rose Steele — signify little. But in fact these are what might be called melting pot names.

Shelby is the name of their paternal great-grandfather, who was born to slaves and married a white woman he met in the early civil rights movement. Jack is their other paternal great-grandfather, who survived the Holocaust and rebuilt his life in New York City. June is their maternal great-aunt, who was a flower child and a direct descendant of the first Mormons. Rose is their paternal great-great-grandmother (great-grandfather Shelby's mother), a slave who gave birth to 13 children. Rose is also Rosario, their maternal great-grandfather, who raised cattle in the Sonora mountains of Mexico.

Jack and June will grow up hearing stories of their ancestors' struggles, triumphs and defeats. They will learn how each forebear's unique journey converges in their blood, giving them no easy allegiance to a single race. Individuals rather than tribes will form the foundation for their individuality.

Then one day a stranger will stare into their faces, unable to deduce a single race in the mix of features: "What are you?" If they are anything like I was when I was growing up, they will begin with their family history, only to be asked again, "But, what are you?" In the age of identity politics, it is not stories but race that matters.

Jack and June may have a hard row to hoe. Identity politics have made racial identity a social currency, rewarded by preferences in college admissions, government contracts and employment. Jack and June have the bloodlines to win preferences. But if they do, they enter into a world where no choice is clean-cut. Do they join the black, Jewish or Latino organizations — or all of them? Do they publicly cultivate one racial identity while privately living free of such categories with family and friends? Or do they come to the conclusion that identity politics cannot offer anything but the pretense of racial purity?

And then the ultimate irony: Jack and June are naturally more diverse than any amount of social engineering in neighborhoods, schools or offices can achieve. They are creations of a high humanism: the love of their parents, grandparents and great-great grandparents. Jack and June are the result that social engineering — integration, inclusion and diversity — often fails to achieve.

My hope is that my children and their peers will restore a weakened American legacy: the self-invented and self-made individual. If they do, they will be free, as their ancestors were, to carve out identities and contribute to an already rich heritage for future generations.

Eli Steele is a filmmaker and graduate student at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy. He is developing a documentary on interracial Americans.

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