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 placid smile and somewhat ambiguous features, she looked like someone you might encounter in tomorrow's Los Angeles or Toronto — a curious melange of Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and Anglo-Saxon traits.
As it happened, Time's model was not a real person but a cybernetic crossbreed. The image was created on a computer by "morphing" men and women from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. As Time's editors explained, this was a preview of the sort of offspring likely to emerge in tomorrow's multicultural society.
The magazine cover captured an essential truth about America at century's end. 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 into a single culture.
For all the platitudes about melting pots, mosaics, and rainbow coalitions, many regard the "browning" of America as a profoundly disturbing trend. Miscegenation is still regarded as culturally taboo on Main Street. As recently as 20 years ago, some states still had laws in place forbidding interracial marriage.
Many people complain that miscegenation waters down their culture. Some Jews, for example, blame the disintegration of Judaism on the growing rate of interfaith marriages in America. Similarly, a number of Indian tribes are 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 the 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 have 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 are now preparing a form for the 2000 census. How about a box for "all of the above"? Or, better yet, how about no boxes for race?
Some say that America is actually less diverse than it was a century ago. There is some truth to this. A hundred years ago one could stroll along the wharves of New York City and hear a dozen languages and encounter immigrants from every corner of the old world. But this argument hides an essential fact: the main reason America is less diverse today than it was at the turn of the century is because of all the criss-crossing that has occurred in the intervening generations. We are no longer a nation of Scandinavian farmers, Chinese laborers, and Polish merchants, we are a nation of crossbreeds. In the last two decades alone, the number of intermarriages 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. After the Los Angeles riots, it was common to hear pundits lament the deepening "racial divide" in the United States. Some wrote portentously about how the nation was 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 L.A., for example, the worst gang violence involves Mexicans, Hmongs, and Koreans. In San Francisco high schools, the fight is between Filipinos and Samoans.
As I see it, the mingling and the mixing of race is a sign that we are evolving toward a higher, more integrated state as a culture. One indication of this is 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, they refine and develop 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. It's a delicate balance.
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 21st century, 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?
One way to do this was suggested to me by philosopher Barbara Marx Hubbard. She feels that an enlightened society ought to ask each group or culture to contribute what it considers its unique gift. "Make uniqueness a blessing," as she put it. If we were to do this, in very short order people would cease to speak of themselves as blacks or whites or straights or gays or Buddhists or Christians. 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 share a common vision.
It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. We find this same 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." The question then as now is, will the obliteration of certain distinctions mean the obliteration of identity itself?
I don't think so. I look upon 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.
This essay appears in the anthology At Issue: Interracial Relationships (Greenhaven Press, 1999). It was originally published in HopeDance magazine, September/October 1998.