A New American Family has emerged in the post-World War II era that will have an enormous impact on the country’s future culture. The New American Family is multiracial, multiethnic and multireligious. American society has significantly increased its acceptance of these families over the past 50 years. Unfortunately, government racial identity policies may be hampering America’s progress toward racial tolerance and a melting-pot society.
In 2010, 15 percent of new marriages in the United States were interracial. Twenty-five percent of Asians and Hispanics, 17 percent of blacks and 9 percent of whites married outside of their race. In 1970, less than 1 percent of marriages were interracial. Multiethnic and multiracial marriage are not new in America, but society’s acceptance of these marriages is. Prior to 1970, multiethnic white marriages became relatively common after the second or third generation off the boat. Prior to 1967, black-white marriages were illegal in the South and discouraged in the rest of the country.
After the Supreme Court invalidated anti-miscegenation laws in 1967, American attitudes shifted toward acceptance of interracial marriages. In 1970, approximately 30 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriages compared to nearly 80 percent today. 95 percent of the millennial generation approves. A millennial might be surprised by the social anxiety caused when Katherine Houghton brought Sidney Poitier home in the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Unlike in the mid-20th century, people today rarely turn around and look at an interracial couple on the street.
As a result of the increase in interracial marriages, there is a significant increase in the number of multiracial people in the population. In 2010, just under 3 percent of the population self-identified as multiracial. This number is probably understated because of the historical “one drop” rule classifying people with one drop of black blood as black and the number of “passing” whites. However, nearly 6 percent of children — twice as many as adults — were classified as multiracial. Given the increasing rate of interracial marriages, multiracial children will be the fastest growing segment of the population in the foreseeable future.
This is good news for America. The concept of America as the melting pot is becoming a reality rather than a myth. Approximately one-third of Americans say they have someone of a different race married into their family. People make a greater effort to be tolerant and accepting of family members (even in-laws) than non-family members.
It also indicates social and cultural mobility that is less impeded by race. People are more likely to choose mates and friends based on their education, common interests and romantic attractions rather than their racial classification. It brings America closer to Martin Luther King’s dream of an America where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It is hard to find bad news in this development. Interracial couples brought up in different cultures may have to accommodate some different customs of their spouse’s culture. However, this is a cultural issue more than a racial issue. Furthermore, most Americans whose families have been here more than a couple of generations are thoroughly Americanized, and the cultural differences are not insurmountable.
People who prefer racial and religious purity may still pursue it. However, the trajectory of American and world history is not on their side. During the 17th century, William Shakespeare wrote plays about an interracial relationship in “Othello” and a multi-religious relationship in “The Merchant of Venice.” In 1957, Leonard Bernstein updated Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in his hit musical “West Side Story,” in which white, working-class Tony falls in love with Puerto Rican Maria.
Consider historically prominent Americans with mixed racial ancestry and offspring. Thomas Jefferson, the principal draftsman of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, had a number of children by his quadroon slave, Sally Hemmings. She also happened to be his deceased white wife’s half-sister. Even Sen. Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina segregationist who ran for president in 1948 on the States Rights Democratic Party ticket, recognized and supported his black daughter. Today, America’s first mulatto president, Barack Obama, prominently promotes his half-African and white roots. Based on genetic studies and genealogical research, a surprising number of Americans have multiracial roots. About 30 percent of whites in America have a black ancestor, 75 percent of blacks have a white ancestor and 10 percent of “blacks” are at least 50 percent white.
Yet, even as Americans today increasingly accept our multiracial society, the American government implicitly encourages Americans to identify with divisive racial classifications. When an American fills out a government form, there is usually a box to check on race. While there is a box for mixed or other, the form implicitly encourages Americans to identify with their legacy race or races rather than identify as American. This process starts at the hospital when an American is born. The hospital must check a box on the baby’s race (though not on the birth certificate anymore). It continues every 10 years when the census is taken. Schools are required to report their racial composition to the Department of Education. Employers who are not allowed to discriminate by race must nevertheless fill out Labor Department forms with racial designations. It continues when Americans purchase a house and fill out FHA mortgage forms, and when they apply for SBA loans to finance their businesses. When they retire, the government duly notes race on Social Security and Medicare forms. Even when a court applies blind American justice by selecting a jury, the juror’s race is noted and can be a basis for disqualification. The government is obsessed with Americans’ racial identities unless it is collecting taxes. The IRS does not yet ask Americans to check a racial box on tax form 1040.
By pressing Americans to identify with a particular race, government policy emphasizes people’s differences and not their common American culture. This institutionalized racial labeling is divisive and certainly does not contribute to racial and social harmony. Do race-based preferences for government subsidized housing and mortgages really promote housing integration? If so, how much resentment is caused? Affirmative action for education and jobs is ground zero in the Supreme Court for the perceived unfairness to the un-favored races, generally Asians and whites.
Racially gerrymandered electoral districts designed to elect blacks or Hispanics has contributed to almost irreconcilable political division. Democratic legislators try to draw legislative lines to have majority black voters in districts that are likely to vote for black liberal Democrats. Republican legislators are more than happy to accommodate them in order to take black liberal voters out of ethnically mixed districts to make these districts more white and more likely to vote for conservative Republicans. As a result, Republicans do not need to appeal to black voters, and Democrats take them for granted.
How does the multiracial American identify himself in this environment? Should the biracial American who is 50 percent black and 50 percent white identify as black to get into a better school? What about the octoroon who is 1/8th black? Does that mean he or she must forsake their white ancestry? Does the upper middle class octoroon really deserve the benefit of affirmative action more than a working class white person in Appalachia?
Increased interracial marriages and a growing segment of multiracial Americans do not mean that America’s future will be free from prejudice. Middle-aged blacks are painfully aware of prejudice based on skin color within the black community in the Jim Crow era. Latin Americans know the subtle social distinctions based on the perceived mixture of white and Indian blood. Asian Indians still deal with prejudice resulting from caste distinctions in India.
America’s future of tolerance and freedom from prejudice will be based on acceptance of Dr. King’s dream that his children would be judged by the “content of their character.” The growth of multiracial families is an important step in the right direction. However, the government must also play a role by eliminating policies which encourage Americans to identify themselves along ethnic and racial lines as hyphenated African-, Caucasian- or Hispanic-American. We are Americans first regardless of our ethnic lineage. America’s de facto motto until 1956 was “E pluribus unum” — Latin for “Out of many, one.” An easy first step for Americans to become one would be for Congress to outlaw federal forms that ask for racial classification.