(Second of two parts)
WRITING RECENTLY in National Review, Ward Connerly described an encounter with a woman who supported his efforts to abolish racial preferences and promote colorblind government.
"What you're doing," she told him, "is also best for your people."
At the words "your people," Connerly flinched. He loathes the mindset that sorts human beings into racial categories. Though he didn't want to risk losing her financial support, he decided he owed her the honesty of explaining why her words set his teeth on edge. So he confronted her.
"What did you mean when you referred to 'my people'?"
"The black race," she said.
"What is your 'race'?" Connerly inquired.
"I'm Irish and German."
"Would it affect your concept of my 'race,'" he asked, "if I told you that one of my grandparents was Irish and American Indian, another French Canadian, another of African descent, and the other Irish? Aren't they all 'my people'? What about my children? They consist of my ingredients as well as those of their mother, who is Irish. What about my grandchildren, two of whom have a mother who is half Vietnamese?"
The woman was taken aback, Connerly records, but the exchange led to "one of the richest conversations about race I have ever had."
If only he could have that conversation with everyone. Too many Americans still believe that people can be "scientifically" classified by race, a 17th-century notion more closely related to myth than to science. By now racial taxonomy should have been shelved with phlogiston and phrenology as laughably obsolete explanations of the way the world works. Indeed, it should be reviled, since race-mindedness, unlike phlogiston and phrenology, has led to incalculable cruelty, sorrow, and strife.
That was why the giants of the civil rights movement argued so forcefully for a government blind to color. "Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and insidious," Thurgood Marshall argued in his Brown v. Board of Education brief in 1954, "that a state bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not allow them in any public sphere."
And yet the government still draws and values those distinctions -- more obsessively than ever, to judge from last year's census questionnaire. In decades past, Americans were asked to assign themselves to one of four or five races. But the 2000 census offered not four or five racial options but -- count 'em -- 63.
That was because respondents for the first time were invited to choose "one or more" racial categories in identifying themselves. Belatedly, and not without a lot of grassroots pressure, the federal government was finally acknowledging that a growing number of Americans are, like Connerly, multiracial. Now it ought to take the next step and go from 63 choices to zero. For as the Connerlys of this nation demonstrate, racial labels grow more meaningless by the day.
Close to 7 million Americans identified themselves as multiracial on last year's census, proof, if any were needed, that love doesn't stop at the color line. And if that was true for couples like the Connerlys, who married and had children at a time when the taboo against interracial families still ran deep, how much more will it be true of those falling in love today, for many of whom the taboo has never existed?
"Soaring rates of interracial friendship and dating," writes Tamar Jacoby, a leading scholar of race (not related to me), in the June issue of Commentary, "is no fringe phenomenon: According to one recent survey, more than 60 percent of American teenagers have dated someone of another color or ethnic group. A . . . Gallup poll conducted in March found that 64 percent of the public -- and 75 percent of those under 18 -- thought it was 'good for the country' to have more Americans 'think of themselves as multiracial rather than belonging to a single race.'"
There are now nearly 2 million married couples in which one partner is Hispanic, 700,000 white-Asian couples, and 450,000 white-black couples. Naturally the number of multiracial children is soaring: according to one estimate, births to white-black couples more than tripled in the 1990s. On the 2000 census, nearly one-10th of black Americans under 18 identified themselves as multiracial.
Many minority interest groups resent the drift from narrow racial and ethnic pigeonholes. Fewer people identifying themselves as black or Hispanic or Asian, they fear, will mean a loss of political power, not to mention a loss of affirmative-action largesse. Some of them push a separatist line, urging minorities to take pride in being "of color" and resist assimilation into the American mainstream.
But in the piquant phrase of demographics expert Ben Wattenberg, host of the weekly PBS program Think Tank, the separatists are being "defeated in the bedroom." The population of blended citizens is soaring, and with it the realization that our racial divisions are only skin deep. Tens of millions of Americans have learned to think outside the racial box. It's time the government followed suit.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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