The Face of Tomorrow:
Reflections on Diversity in America
By Scott London
Some years ago Time magazine published a special issue on multiculturalism in America. The cover featured a beguiling mestizo woman over the caption "the New Face of America." The cover girl was at once familiar and exotic. With her ambiguous features and coloring, she looked like someone you might encounter in a multiracial city like Los Angeles or Toronto — not Asian, Middle Eastern, African, or Anglo-Saxon, but something of all of them.
As it happened, Time's model was not a real person but a digital composite. She was created on a computer by "morphing" men and women of various races. As Time's editors explained, this was a preview of the type of offspring likely to emerge in 21st century America.
The magazine cover captured an essential truth about the United States today. We live in an increasingly diverse and increasingly mongrel society, a nation of blurred boundaries and bizarre extremes. Never before in history has a society been as diverse as the U.S. is today. And never before have so many different traditions, beliefs and values been integrated in a single culture.
For all the rhetoric about melting pots, salad bowls and cultural mosaics, many Americans regard the "browning" of our population as a profoundly disturbing trend. Miscegenation is still frowned upon in many quarters. As recently as a half-century ago, some states still had laws in place forbidding interracial marriage.
Some Jews will tell you that miscegenation is watering down their culture, for example. They blame the growing rate of interfaith marriages for what they see as the disintegration of Judaism. A number of Indian tribes are likewise concerned that thinning bloodlines will lead to the "statistical extermination" of their people. A century ago, half of all Indians in the U.S. were considered fullbloods. Today that number is down to about 20 percent. On Indian reservations, there is now a suicide problem among young half-breeds who don't feel sufficiently "pure."
As writer Richard Rodriguez has pointed out, we've never had an especially rich vocabulary for miscegenation. While other cultures speak of themselves as mestizos, mulattoes, and creoles, we persist in referring to ourselves using clumsy designations like Asian-American, African-American, Native American, and even Anglo-American. Curiously, the 1990 census form had boxes for "white," "black" and "other," but not for "multiracial." Bureaucrats in Washington changed the form in time for the 2000 census, but there is still no box for "all of the above," which would be the most fitting choice for a growing number of Americans today.
Some say that America is actually less diverse than it was a century ago. At the turn of the last century, you could stroll along the wharves of New York City and hear a dozen languages and encounter immigrants from every corner of the old world. This is true, of course, but the argument hides an essential fact. The main reason America is less diverse today is because of all the crosspollination that has occurred in the intervening generations. We are no longer a nation of Scandinavians, Chinese, and Irish immigrants, we are a nation of crossbreeds. In the last few decades, the number of interracial marriages in the U.S. has jumped from 300,000 to over a million. The incidence of births of mixed-race babies has multiplied 26 times as fast as that of any other group.
How do we recognize our fundamental unity without brushing aside the important differences that make us separate and distinct?
These facts are sobering in light of all the divisive talk of cultural separatism and resurgent ethnic pride in America. It's still common to hear pundits lament the deepening "racial divide" in the United States. They talk about how the nation into splitting into two parts, one white and one black. There is a certain arrogance in these assertions, for they always assume that whites and blacks are at the center of the racial equation. It's as though whites and blacks can imagine America only in terms of each other. The truth is that many of the racial tensions in America have nothing to do with blacks or whites. In some parts of Los Angeles, for example, the worst gang violence involves Mexicans, Hmongs, and Koreans. In San Francisco high schools, the fighting is between Filipinos and Samoans.
As I see it, the mingling and the mixing of race is a sign that we're evolving toward a higher, more integrated state as a culture. This is reflected in the fact that, as the French theologian Teilhard de Chardin put it, "union differentiates." The smaller the differences are between people, the more they insist on them. Anthropologists have long observed that as people and cultures evolve, they become more and more distinctive. They don't shed the qualities that make them unique, instead they refine and accentuate them. Diversity appears to be a function of social evolution.
Of course, diversity doesn't mean a thing if it doesn't challenge us to be more open-minded and inclusive. All too often, what passes for diversity are merely brown, black, and white versions of the same political ideology. There will always be those who overemphasize our diversity and fail to appreciate our essential unity, just as there will always be those who overemphasize our unity and fail to recognize the virtues of diversity. The balance is a delicate one.
Our founding fathers captured this tension in our national motto, E Pluribus Unum — from the many, one. It's the great paradox of America: what we have in common is diversity. When the founders laid out America's first principles two hundred years ago, they took inspiration from the Iroquois Indian Confederacy. The Indian tribes modelled this principle of unity in diversity by retaining their individuality while at the same time belonging to a common network in the name of progress and mutual protection.
As we look to the future, we are faced with the very same challenge: how do we recognize our fundamental unity without brushing aside the important differences that make us separate and distinct?
An enlightened society should ask each group or culture to contribute what it considers its unique gift, says futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard. "Make uniqueness a blessing," as she puts it. If we were to do this, in very short order people would cease to speak of themselves as blacks or whites, straight or gay, Buddhist or Christian. Instead, they would begin to speak of themselves as individuals — as ethnicities and denominations of one. People would no longer want to be lumped together in groups, except to the extent that they might share common values and ideas.
It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. We find this principle at work in sports teams, business groups and community organizations. As any good leader knows, group success hinges on making the best use of people's unique talents and abilities.
In 1782, Crevecoeur famously observed that in America "individuals of all nations are melted into a new race." This fusing process, wrote Emerson, "goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even — transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. Uniform institutions, ideas, language, the influence of the majority, bring us soon to a similar complexion ... like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot."
The question then as now is, will the obliteration of certain distinctions mean the obliteration of identity itself? I don't think so. I see the hybridization of America as a source of great promise. The future belongs to the mestizo, the person who straddles many different worlds and can help explain them to each other.
An earlier form of this essay appears in the anthology Interracial Relationships, edited by Bryan Grapes (Greenhaven Press, 1999).