The Color of Our Future: Race in the 21st Centuryby Farai Chideya
Two years ago, Newsweek named Farai Chideya to its "Century Club" of a hundred people to watch as we approached the year 2000. Beautiful, savvy, and wired for sound, she's an ideal guide to the new, multiracial America that's emerging as the next generation grows up and begins to shape our society. From coast to coast, from urban 'hoods to Indian/em>
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Two years ago, Newsweek named Farai Chideya to its "Century Club" of a hundred people to watch as we approached the year 2000. Beautiful, savvy, and wired for sound, she's an ideal guide to the new, multiracial America that's emerging as the next generation grows up and begins to shape our society. From coast to coast, from urban 'hoods to Indian reservations to lily-white small towns, she talks to young men and women about their views on race, painting a vivid portrait of a notion in transition, as America ceases to be defined by the black/white divide and enters a more complex multiethnic era. Most of all, she allows the voices of the next generation -- black, while, Latino, Asian, Native American, and multiracial -- to ring out with truth and clarity.
Since the Civil Rights movement, most Americans have thought of race as a black and white issue. That won't be the case for long. By the year 2050, there will be more nonwhite than white Americans, and most of the nonwhite population will be Asian and Latino, not black. Increasingly, America is becoming a multiracial society. Americans in their teens and twenties are at the forefront of this cultural revolution. In The Color of Our Future, young journalist Farai Chideya explores how members of the next generation deal with race in their own lives and how the decisions they make determine America's ethnic future.
From urban hoods to Native American reservations to lily-white small towns, Chideya talks to young men and women about their personal views of race, painting a vivid portrait of a nation in transition. In clear, compelling language, she describes young people dealing with the complexities of diversity in their everyday lives. She writes of a young interracial couple pitted against their community in the South and of the white teens in Indiana, birthplace of the Klan, who get their black, hip-hop aesthetic from MTV. She interviews a Native American who wants to be the next Bill Gates, bringing computer access to his reservation in Montana, and a Mexican-American woman, working for the border patrol in El Paso, who catches the destitute Mexicans who flock into the United States to work for affluent white Texans. All these young people have clear, strong ideas about the impact of race on everything from education to pop culture. They are honest, sometimes brutally so, about their own prejudices. Their moving stories are the blueprint for the future of America. With a discerning ear and sharp insight, Chideya allows the voices of the next generation -- black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, and multiracial -- to ring out with truth and clarity and guide us to the kaleidoscope of our future.Since the Civil Rights movement, most Americans have thought of race as a black and white issue. That won't be the case for long. By the year 2050, there will be more nonwhite than white Americans, and most of the nonwhite population will be Asian and Latino, not black. Increasingly, America is becoming a multiracial society. Americans in their teens and twenties are at the forefront of this cultural revolution. In The Color of Our Future, young journalist Farai Chideya explores how members of the next generation deal with race in their own lives and how the decisions they make determine America's ethnic future.
From urban hoods to Native American reservations to lily-white small towns, Chideya talks to young men and women about their personal views of race, painting a vivid portrait of a nation in transition. In clear, compelling language, she describes young people dealing with the complexities of diversity in their everyday lives. She writes of a young interracial couple pitted against their community in the South and of the white teens in Indiana, birthplace of the Klan, who get their black, hip-hop aesthetic from MTV. She interviews a Native American who wants to be the next Bill Gates, bringing computer access to his reservation in Montana, and a Mexican-American woman, working for the border patrol in El Paso, who catches the destitute Mexicans who flock into the United States to work for affluent white Texans. All these young people have clear, strong ideas about the impact of race on everything from education to pop culture. They are honest, sometimes brutally so, about their own prejudices. Their moving stories are the blueprint for the future of America. With a discerning ear and sharp insight, Chideya allows the voices of the next generation--black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, and multiracial--to ring out with truth and clarity and guide us to the kaleidoscope of our future.
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Race Right Now
America is a chameleon. A land populated by hundreds of Indian tribes became home to European settlers seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. As the number of those settlers grew, the Native American population shrankplagued by new diseases and pushed by the immigrants to ever-smaller plots of land. The European immigrants reinvented themselves as a nation, calling themselves Americans, and setting themselves and their country apart from their European forebears. These European Americans introduced yet another population to this land: the Africans who camenot all, but nearly soas slaves.
When America was formally founded in 1776, it was already a multiracial nation, though few at the time would ever have thought to call it that. America is fundamentally different from most other cultures. For centuries, Europe had its nation-tribes: the Germans, the French, the Celts. So did Africa and Asia, where today's societies have grown out of ones that have existed for millennia. America was not homegrown but born out of the arrival of different peoples on an already-populated continent. The interactions between English and French settlers, blacks and whites, whites and Native Americans made America what it is today. We can't understand America without first understanding it as a cross section of cultures.
Over time, the blood of many whites, blacks, and Native Americans mingled. And the Mexicans who settled the West and Southwest had already formed their own mixture as well, Spanish andIndian blending into mestizos. As America took control of Mexican lands in California, Texas, and the Southwest, the nation became even more diverse. The thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the mid-1800s to build the transcontinental railroad eventually settled in West Coast cities like San Francisco, though Chinese immigration was later curtailed by law. And on the East Coast, the turn of the century saw a great wave of European immigration, itself quite diverse: Jewish, Greek, Russian, Polish, Irish, Italian.
Trying to encapsulate America's history is probably foolish, and always controversial. But in order to understand where we are today, we have to try to find some common understanding of the past. America's "founding fathers" may have been white, but this nation never was populated or built by just one race. It's more critical than ever that we remember this, given the massive transformation our society is about to undergo.
America the chameleon is changing colors once again. Today, thanks to demographics, we can gaze into our futureone far different from our racial past. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, we're entering a century in which race in America will be turned upside down. By the middle of that century, whites will be a minority, and minorities will be in the majority.
A "Majority-Minority" America
In 1950, America was nearly 85 percent non-Hispanic white. Today, this nation is 73 percent non-Hispanic white, 12 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native American. (To put it another way, we're about three-quarters white and one-quarter minority.) But America's racial composition is changing more rapidly than ever. The number of immigrants in America is the largest in any post-World War II period. Nearly one-tenth of the U.S. population is foreign born. Asian Americans, the fastest-growing group in America, have begun to come politically of age in California and the Pacific Northwest (where a Chinese American is governor of Washington State). And the Census Bureau projects that the number of Latino Americans will surpass blacks as the largest nonwhite group by 2005.
There's a much larger change looming for America. Around the year 2050, whites will become a minority. This is uncharted territory for this country, and this demographic change will affect everything. Alliances between the races are bound to shift. Political and social power will be reapportioned. Our neighborhoods, our schools and workplaces, even racial categories themselves will be altered. Any massive social change is bound to bring uncertainty, even fear. But the worst crisis we face today is not in our cities or neighborhoods, but in our minds. We have grown up with a fixed idea of what and who America is, and how race relations in this nation work. We live by two assumptions: that race is a black and white issue, and that America is a white society. Neither has ever been strictly true, and today these ideas are rapidly becoming obsolete.
Our idea of "Americanness" has always been linked with "whiteness," from tales of the Pilgrims forward. We still see the equation of white/American every day in movies and on television (where shows like Mad About You, set in majority-minority New York, have no nonwhite main characters). We witness it in the making of social policy. (The U.S. Senate is only 4 percent nonwhitethough over 20 percent of the country is.) We make casual assumptions about who belongs in this society and who is an outsider. (Just ask the countless American-born Asians and Latinos who've been complimented on how well they speak English.)
"Whiteness" would not exist, of course, without something against which to define itself. That thing is "blackness." Slavery was the forging crucible of American racial identity, setting up the black-white dichotomy from which we have never broken free. The landmarks of American history are intimately intertwined with these racial conflictsthe Civil War, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement. But today, even as America becomes more diverse, the media still depicts the world largely in black and white. The dramas and sitcoms we watch are so segregated that the top ten shows in black households and the top ten shows in white households barely overlap. Or examine the news media. The three-year-long coverage of the O. J. Simpson trials portrayed a nation riven by the black/ white color line. And when Nightline did a first-rate series on race, it still didn't cover the true range of diversity but "America in Black and White." Race is almost always framed as bipolarthe children of slaves versus the children of slaveownerseven when the issues impact Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans as well. School segregation, job integrationthey're covered in black and white. Political rivalries, dating trends, income inequalitiesthey're covered as two-sided dilemmas as well. For all the time we spend talking about black and white, the only thing we can agree on is that we disagree. Affirmative action: equal opportunity or reverse racism? Afrocentrism: black pride or hatred of whites? The entire race debate becomes nothing more than a shouting match, a sort of McLaughlin Group gone awry.
Everyone gets exposed to media images of race. Americans who have never met an immigrant from China or Mexico will doubtless have seen their images on the nightly news and formed an opinion about immigration from those images. Kids who have never met an African American will learn about slavery in school, listen to rap or R & B, and read an article on welfare reform or the NBA. It's only human nature to put together those pieces and try to synthesize an idea of what it means to be black. The media and pop culture have such a tremendous power in our society because we use them to tell us what the rest of the society is like, and how we should react to it. The problem is that, too often, the picture we're getting is out of kilter.
If you're not black and not white, you're not very likely to be seen. According to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the proportion of Latino characters on prime-time television actually dropped from 3 percent in the 1950s to 1 percent in the 1980s, even as the Latino population rapidly grew. Asian Americans are even harder to find in entertainment, in the news, or on the national agenda, and Native Americans rarer still. How we perceive race, and how it's depicted in print and on television, has less to do with demographic reality than our mind-set. In the basest and most stereotypic terms, white Americans are considered "true" Americans; black Americans are considered inferior Americans; Asians and Latinos are too often considered foreigners; and Native Americans are rarely thought of at all.
America can't move into the future if we as a society don't acknowledge who we are. But I can't chastise people for buying into the vision of a black and white Americaafter all, that's where I grew up.
Jews, Grits, Blacks, and Niggers
Race is probably the most tangible and subjective force in our lives, dependent not on biology as we'd like to claim, but on our perceptions of color, class, age, and place. My first perceptions of race were formed in Baltimore, Maryland. When I grew up, and where I grew up, there were three basic races of people: black, white, and Jewish. I attended Baltimore City Public Schools from the mid-seventies through the mid-eighties, or, to demarcate it the way my politically aware family might, roughly from the start of President Carter's term through the end of President Reagan's.
Like many cities with a majority-black population, Baltimore had a school system that was really black. Lots of white parents sent their kids to private schools, or at least made sure they got into majority-white public ones. I started first grade at Mordecai Gist Elementary, three blocks from my house. Like the residents of our Forest Park neighborhood, a working- and middle-class area with shingled single-family homes, the student body was all black. Forest Park used to be mostly Jewishfilmmaker Barry Levinson, singer Mama Cass and novelist Leon Uris all attended the high school named for the tree-lined nabe. But by the time my family moved in in 1975, the Jewish families were all gone.
For second through sixth grades, I went to the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program at Harford Heights Elementary School. Harford Heights was deep in the `hood, a hulking gray brick edifice that housed nearly three thousand students, most of them black. But GATE, a magnet program that bused in talented students from around the city, was an oasis of racial diversity. At that time I was very, very dimly aware of the differences between Jewish students and the other whites. (For International Day, when students brought in food from other cultures, we got to eat a lot of latkes.) We even had two Mexican American brothers in GATE, a rarity not repeated the rest of my school years.
By junior high (at Falstaff Middle School) and especially during high school, the black/white/Jewish distinctions were accepted as common knowledge. Western High, another magnet school, is one of only two all-girl public high schools left in the nation. Our student body, once all-white, was just over half black. It would have had even fewer white students had the school not had such a good reputation. Though it claimed to wrap itself in a mantle of general excellence, the school used tracking to separate kids it deemed high achievers from the rest of the lot. "A" course kids got to take the really challenging classes like calculus and AP English, and virtually all of the Jewish students at the school attended the "A" course. They dressed preppy or artsy and lived in the wealthier neighborhoods. Some of their moms and dads were professors at Johns Hopkins, and several of the students drove their own cars instead of taking the bus. My friends and I used to call them the Cross Keys Girls, because even though we were supposed to have a closed campus, they mysteriously got to sneak out and go have lunch at the nearby ritzy shopping center Cross Keys.
The real "white" students, as we saw them, were Christian and mostly working class. They wore hard-rock T-shirts and faded corduroys, had bilevel haircuts with fringed Farrah Fawcett wings. Our unkind name for them was "grits." Most of the white students had a classic "Bawlamer" accent, a city-specific twanginess rooted in Appalachia. (I won't attempt to fully explain the Bawlamer accent, but rent an early John Waters movie for a full demonstration.) Most of the black students, if they had an accent at all, had a slight Southern drawl and possibly Ebonics-afied grammar shaping their speech.
I'll always remember a conversation I had freshman year with a girl in my class. Donna was a pretty, doe-eyed girl who looked the way Friends star Courtney Cox did back when she got to run up on stage in Bruce Springsteen's video. One day in homeroom we all started talking about race. Donna said her grandfather had been telling her about black peoplemore precisely, the difference between "black people" and "niggers." Needless to say, I joined several of my classmates in vociferously protesting "nigger" as a valid racial category. I calmly explained that the word "nigger" was a slur with no parallel in other racial groups, not even "white trash." "Nigger" is the all-American trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets. It's slavery and Jim Crow, spit on your face and all the stories your grandpa ever told you. (Perhaps that's one reason why young blacks have seized on the term so fiercely. The only way they can dissipate the bomb's power is to hug it tightly to their chest and implode.)
I told Donna that rather than calling someone a "nigger," she should just chalk them up as a lazy, violent, or hostile black person, the same way we'd talk about a lazy, violent, or hostile white person. (Of course at the same time I was speaking with such enlightenment, I was thinking, "Grit! Grit!!!!")
Donna was genuinely sweet, one of the girls who bridged the black/ white clumping that typified even our open-minded homeroom. Our little debate didn't produce any lasting tensions. I didn't even think about it until three years later, when we were signing each other's yearbooks. I wrote a quick one liner about "staying cool" in hers, while Donna wrote a long passage thanking me for teaching her about race and changing her ideas and opinions. When I read what she'd written, I felt both proud and schmucky (for underestimating her sensitivity).
Perhaps because we were in the majority, Western's black students, who stuck together at least as much as the Jewish girls and "grits" did, had no one stereotype. Black girls could be preppy, athletic, or rough. They could belong to the Fashionettes (yes, that was an official club) or even a tough, stylish lesbian clique called the Pony Girls. Artsy, nerdy misfits like myself were a relative rarity among the black students. To top it off, my two best friends were Cindy, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who ran a restaurant downtown; and Polly, the child of white activists, who had an adopted black-biracial sister. Our clique, if you could call it that, was probably the most unusual in the school.
I didn't fit any of the typical stereotypes, either racial or class-based. I grew up intellectually, but not financially, privileged. My father, a Zimbabwean immigrant, met my mother in graduate school at Syracuse University. They married in my mother's hometown of Baltimore; spent two years in Zambia, where my mother was a newspaper reporter; and then, after I was born, settled into a middle-class lifestyle in New York City. My dad worked for AT&T. My mother freelanced a bit, concentrating on raising me and my younger sister. I went to a private kindergarten on the East Side and played in Central Park. When I was six, my family moved to Baltimore, my parents divorced, and my mom got a job as a medical technologist. I challenge any MBA to make a salary stretch as far as hers did: a mortgage on a four-bedroom house and upkeep of a rickety, beloved Volkswagen Beetle we occasionally had to push to get started; clothes that were often handmade or used; and, where others would splurge on new wardrobes, tuition to academic summer camps.
I find it hard to judge whether my childhood was circumscribed by race and class, or partially freed from it. My mother, who'd grown up akin to the way I didwithout much money but with lots of bookswent off to college and then to Morocco with the Peace Corps before meeting my father. As I grew, she constantly broadened the world for me with books, history, and stories of her own life. But while her efforts to keep me on course academically worked admirably, her efforts to broaden my understanding of race and culture could only go so far. I was a lower-middle-income girl growing up in a virtually all black neighborhood, and to me, Baltimoreand the world as I knew itwas split between black, Jewish, and white.
Race Is How (and Where) We See It
I'm the first to admit my perceptions of race thenand my perceptions of race nowwere and are subjective. Yes, my high school perceptions were based in fact: blacks, Christian working-class whites and Jewish Americans each make up huge chunks of Baltimore's population. But once I moved away from Baltimore to go to college at Harvard, I began to realize that everyday racial categories are our own constructions.
When I showed up at Harvard, I went from a city that is majority-black to one where blacks are less than 20 percent of the population, and some still get called "nigger" to their face. (I did, just once, and that was more than enough for me.) Boston's Irish Americans are as strong a subcategory of "white" as Baltimore's Jewish community, their racial status shaped by residential isolation and poverty in much the way that black identity is. But even though I got to see Boston's neighborhoods, I spent most of my time on campus in Cambridge. I bonded immediately with my funky-fresh freshman roommate Pam Linglater known to teens and twentysomethings worldwide as "that girl on MTV's The Real World" (San Francisco cast). We stayed roommates for all four years, and senior year ended up in a rooming group we jokingly called the U.N. There was Mirka (Puerto Rican), Lucy (white, from a wealthy family and raised partially in England), Lena (white, from working-class Pensacola, Florida), Pam (Chinese American), and me. In high school, I thought that having a diverse group of friends was just happenstance. But in college I started thinking, okay, maybe this time it isn't a fluke. Maybe being friends with people of different races is part of the way I choose to live.
Right after college I moved to New York, where I live today. Two of my close friends and former roommates, Elaine Chen and Tanya Selvaratnam, are Chinese American and Sri Lankan-born American, respectively. Others are black biracial, including my friends Isolde Brielmaier and Danzy Senna, who has written a novel on the subject. (Isolde also happens to be half African, like several of my friends. Some, like Isolde, are biracial; others are, like myself, half African and half black American.) And then there are my Caribbean-born black friends, and my white friends (Jewish and gentile, haute WASP and working class), and the many, many folks who are black Americans, just like me.
I know I'm the exception to the rule. Most of us live and work in a multiracial America, but we socialize with "our own," whether that means segregating by race or class or both. The fact of the matter is, most of us hate being minorities of any kind, and we retreat to a place where people are like us and (we presume) will like us. Being with "our own" isn't in and of itself a bad impulse. I couldn't imagine life without a black family, culture, and community. That is who raised me; that is who I think about first in the racial debates; that is who continues to support me most enthusiastically in my life and my career.
But my mother (who would take me and my sister, for example, to the Greek festival to go folk dancing) taught me that it's important to cross the culture barrier as well. I've gone to the South Asian festival of lights, the Deepavali, with my friend Tanya, and I've gone to Kwaanza celebrations in Harlem. I'm probably one of the few black women in the universe who's seen both the thrash metal band Slayer and, later, the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg in concert. I've spoken at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, and also at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention. It's not that I don't get flustered when I go "out-of-group." There are always potential misunderstandings and pitfalls. But to me, there's no better way to lead life than to try to see the fullness and the richness of many people's existence.
I go to brunches, dinners, and house parties where whites are absent or in the distinct minority. And of coursemore frequently than I'd likeI find myself in a room where I'm the only person darker than a "flesh"-colored crayon. It's happened at holiday parties, rock concerts, conferences, and confabs of political analysts. I find it impossible to be in one of these situations without pondering the political subtext. Right now it's all the rage to talk about black "self-segregation"the tendency of blacks, especially on college campuses, to hang together because they're supposedly anti-integration and antiwhite. But it's funny how the issue doesn't come up when I'm the only black person at a gathering. (Even if you chalk the divide up to socioeconomics, I'm hardly the only Ivy-educated, gainfully employed, media-savvy black person who could be invited to an event. I wonder if there's a quota where one is enough?) I suppose it would be downright impolite for me to carry around a sign saying, WHO'S SELF-SEGREGATING NOW?
The only way I can survive the race debates without becoming embattled or embittered is to try to truly understand the nation we live in. First, I tried to tackle the issue of black-white relations. I started working for Newsweek when I was nineteen years old, as a college intern in Boston. The bureau chief, a guy named Mark Starr whom I feel lucky to still count as a friend, took me under his wing and nurtured a real love for journalism. I started working at Newsweek full-time two weeks after my college graduation. That's where I learned the ropes and decided this was the career I wanted to pursue. But I also learned that the "objective" world of journalism was inevitably shaped by the (understandably human) biases of journalists. My coworkers asked me enough times what black America was like (or, worse, told me what black America was like) that I decided it would be in my best interest to definitively find out.
My first book, Don't Believe the Hype, paired media stereotypes of blacks with research and Census Bureau statistics shattering those stereotypes. On the one hand, a comprehensive study shows that 60 percent of network news about African Americans is negative in tonedepicting welfare dependency, criminals, and crime victims. On the other, government statistics (hardly known for being favorable to blacks) show that blacks and whites have equal rates of drug use; blacks have a higher rate of receiving welfare but whites are the largest group on the rolls; and whites who live in socioeconomically isolated areas (white ghettos like Boston's "Southie") have the same crime rates as comparable blacks. With Don't Believe the Hype, I was able to take my intuition that the media was stereotyping black America and mark it down as hard fact. (Yet one story I constantly hear from people my age is that when they read parts of the book to their parents, their parents react with disbelief. They tell their children that the statistics on blacks I've found just can't be true. Racism can't still be a big factor in American life, and, well, aren't the tables now turned against whites? If what I said was true, then my friends' parents would have to reevaluate how comfortable they've been with their own passive role in America's racial dramas.)
Now, over the past couple of years, I've been rethinking race from a multiethnic perspective. I've been trying to understand how close (or far) my personal perceptions are to some larger reality. I don't discount the fact that I'm the kind of person who chooses to cross culture barriers, or that I'm living in New York, one of the most ethnically mixed cities in the world. But I do know that my experience of race has broadened from a purely black and white view to one that encompasses more knowledge of Asians, Latinos, and others, both native- and foreign-born.
The Color of the Millennium
Our notions of race depend heavily on our age, our generation. When I decided to write about America's racial future, the first question was how to approach a topic this huge. I didn't want to write just a statistical analysis of race, nor did I want to do a memoir, relating racial issues purely from my own experiences. I wanted to combine a bit of both approaches with what I found the most compelling: real life stories of Americans who epitomize the changes we're going through. Even that was far too big a canvas, so I decided to focus in on one group: America's young adults.
The future will be created by the Millennium Generation, today's fifteen- to twenty-five-year-olds. They are the most racially mixed generation this nation has ever seenthe face of the new America. As a group, they are 60 percent more likely to be nonwhite than their parent and grandparent generations, those Americans baby boom-aged and older. No less than one-third of young Americans aged fifteen to twenty-five are black, Latino, Asian, or Native American. While the older generations largely rely on the media to provide them with images of a multiethnic America, this generation is already living in it. The teens and twentysomethings of the Millennium Generation are the true experts on the future of race, because they're re-creating America's racial identity every single day.
The members of the Millennium Generation I interviewed for this book defy the easy racial stereotypes, as I found when I chose people to interview for this book. Take an issue as heated as illegal immigrationand the life of an Oakland teen named Diana. Serious and thoughtful, with hopes of going on to college, this Mexican immigrant has lived most of her life in California. She's more familiar with American culture (not to mention more articulate in English) than most teens. But she doesn't have a green card, and her chances of pursuing her college dreams seem slim. Her dad has a green card and two of her four siblings are U.S. citizens because they were born in the United States. Diana was born in Mexico. So, even though she came to the U.S. at the age of two, Diana will have a nearly impossible time getting citizenship unless she finds the money to hire an immigration lawyer to fight her case. It would be easy to think of Diana as some kind of anomaly, but she's not. Countless undocumented immigrants have spent the majority of their lives in this country. And in California alone, there are over a million residents who belong to families of mixed immigration status.
Another flashpoint is the battle over affirmative action. Berkeley student LaShunda Prescott could be portrayed as a case of affirmative action gone awry, a black student admitted to a school she wasn't ready for. An engineering student, LaShunda dropped out of Berkeley twice before graduating. But during that time she looked out for a drug-addicted sister, took care of one of the sister's children, and dealt with the death of one family member and the shooting of another. In context, her circuitous route through college is not a failure but a triumph.
LaShunda's schoolmate Steve Mohebi shows another side of the new racial dilemmas. The vice president of the Berkeley College Republicans, he defends, even promotes, recruiting in fraternities where "minorities are not welcome." What's new is not the sentiment, but the fact that Steve himself isn't even white. Nor is he black. He's Middle Eastern, a Persian immigrant.
The lives of people like Diana, LaShunda, and Steve are compass points on a map of America's complex social terrain. If we want to understand where America is headed, we've got to take a look at where this generation is todayand how they differ from the generations of the past.
The Generational Race Divide
For me, getting to know this generationtelling their stories and exploring their livesis the ultimate assignment. It contains elements of everything I've been driven to cover as a reporterpolitics, racial issues, youth, future trends. I started working for Newsweek magazine full-time just before I turned twenty-one. Since then I've worked for MTV News, CNN, Vibe magazine and ABC News. I've never done just the "race beat," but at every one of these very different institutions, I've managed to devote some of my time to covering America's greatest obsession.
I'm fascinated by race and ethnicity in America, the clash between old and new, nativeness and foreignness. At heart, I'm a collector of tales, the facts and trends that tell us who we are and what America is. Scouring newspapers and magazines, watching glossy network television programs and grubby public access shows, and talking to my friends and walking the nation's streets, I search out clues on American identity. Everything is fair game: politics, pop music, food, schools, hairstyles. Each snippet of informationfrom a Supreme Court decision on affirmative action to a dance craze like the macarenais as bright and enticing as fruit dangling from a tree. As a reporter for ABC News and a writer for magazines, I hunt for the fruits that are ready to pick: the timely news stories. If there's a racial incident or a court case, it's easy for me to get my editors committed to a story. But sometimes the most interesting information about who we are has nothing to do with violence or lawsuits. A feature on bangra music (a fusion of Hindi songs and American pop and rap) would reveal a lot about the growth of the Indian and South Asian communities in America today. But that story may not seem compelling enough to sell to a wide audience. An article on how Tiger Woods exemplifies mixed-race identity, by contrast, has been done many times.
Some of the best stories about race in America are about America's youth as well. And the young Americans I have interviewed illustrate a fault line in the race debates that most of us don't even think about: a massive generation gap. On the one hand, America is led by baby boomers and people from the generations that came before them. These movers and shakers in government and industry came of age before and during the Civil Rights era, while America was dealing with (and reeling from) the struggles of blacks to gain legal equality with whites. But Americans in their teens and twenties see firsthand evidence in their own schools and neighborhoods that America is becoming less white and more racially mixed. America's pop culture today is infinitely more likely to show blacks as well as whites (though other races often remain unseen). The billion-dollar hip-hop industry, produced by blacks but driven by sales to young fans of all races, is one indicator of the cultural shift. Even more significant, 80 percent of teens have a close friend of another race.
That's not to say that everyone in this generation lives a cookie-cutter version of life in an ethnically diverse America. Quite the contrary: how (and how much) we each experience diversity varies widely, and it depends on everything from geography to income. But there is a fundamental difference between this generation and the ones which came before. Until laws were revised in 1965, the United States accepted few immigrants besides Europeans. In most of the country, especially the East and Midwest, the vision of America as a black and white country largely held true. Today, especially for Americans younger than my twenty-nine years, the issue of race can no longer be described as a dichotomy. In many cases, "race" alone doesn't do justice to the issue; ethnicity and socioeconomics are just as important in the new America. There are more and more American kids who look like one "race" (say, Asian) but whose "ethnicity" is something entirely different (like the many Asian Latinos raised in Latin America). How does their history, their identity fit into the American agenda? My own life is a small example. Racially, I'm black. Ethnically, I'm half African (Shona, to be exact), though I was raised in America and identify as black American. Socioeconomically, I was raised as middle-class, even though we didn't have a lot of money. Anytime we reduce someone to just a race, we miss out on all these complexities.
It's difficult to define race, let alone quantify it. In many ways, it is a figment of our collective imaginations more than a biological phenomenon. For the purposes of this book, I treat black, white, Native American, Asian, and Latino as races. The U.S. Census doesn't. Its categories include black, white, Native American, and Asian/Pacific Island. The Census Bureau classifies Latinos/Hispanics as an ethnicity, not a race. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an ethnicity simply as an "ethnic quality or affiliation," and defines an "ethnic" person as "a member of a minority group who retains the customs, language, or social views of the group." Latinos are definitely an ethnicity, and can be of any race. But Latinos are treated as a race in most sociopolitical contexts (for example, when describing the constituency of a politician or describing a mixed marriage between a Latina and a white man). Black Americans, on the other hand, have been seen as a race almost without ethnicity. Most black Americans are the descendants of slaves, who were forced to discard their language and their customs here in the United States. But as more blacks immigrate to America from around the world, ethnicity is becoming a factor along with race.
Living in New York City, I see glimpses of the future of race every day. Here, the black community is no longer one but many. A child with brown skin and kinky hair may speak American-accented Englishor Spanish, or Senegalese French, or Haitian Creole, or English with a Caribbean lilt. A man speaking fluent Spanish to his children on the subway one moment may switch to fluent, American-accented English the next. At a chic downtown club, a female DJ spins bangra for a multiracial crowd. That's a taste of young New York's diversity, but here, like other places, whites are often the most self-segregated. New York's public school system is disproportionately black, Latino, and Asian, while many white parents send their kids to private schools. This city of eight million people includes many racially and socioeconomically discrete neighborhoods. Some, like Chinatown, seem to welcome visits by outsiders; others, like Bensonhurst, have been the site of vicious racial incidents. Of course, New York is unique in how many cultures it encompasses. But the reality about race is this: every day America's heartland looks more and more like New York and Los Angeles, not the other way around.
I mean this literally, of coursethere are more and more nonwhites in virtually every region and area of the country. But I'm also talking about the way ethnic culture permeates even the smallest, whitest towns. Consider another town I visit in the book. Delphi, Indiana, is a farming and industrial community of two thousand residents, almost all of them white. But most of the local teens listen to rap music as well assometimes instead ofrock and country. They spend countless afternoons watching hip, black kids on MTV and in sitcoms. They have the same albums, clothes, and shoes that inner-city kids do. And they're hungry for more. Says eighteen-year-old B. J. Bushnell, who moved to Delphi from Los Angeles: "It bothers mebut it's kind of hilariousthat some people will report at school that they saw a black person over the weekend.... They'll come up to me and say"he feigns excitement" `They dress just like they do on TV!'" You can't help but laugh, nervously, at the idea of white kids getting a buzz over seeing a real, live black personbut it shows how "minority" culture has shifted from the sidelines to the center. Today, rap music regularly tops the pop charts, and 60 percent of rap album sales are to whites. Even in the heartland, American culture is multiracial culture.
After the Old, Before the New
Young Americans today aren't just on one side of a generation gap. They ARE a generation gap, the core of a massive transition. America has been a majority-white nation obsessed with black and white issues. And America is becoming a majority-minority nation with a multiracial and multicultural population. The problem is that, in some ways, we're neither here nor there. We haven't left the first model behind, nor fully embraced the second.
A moment emblematic of the tensions between the black-white and multiethnic views of America occurred in 1997, when President Bill Clinton convened a seven-member advisory board on race relations. One of the members, Korean-American attorney Angela Oh, announced that she thought the board shouldn't waste too much time analyzing slavery and race relations via "the black-white paradigm." "We need to go beyond that, because the world is about much more than that," she said. "We can't undo this part of our heritage. But what we can affect is where we are headed." Oh is in her early forties and grew up in Los Angeles, a multiracial city with strong ties to Asia, Mexico, and Latin America. She became a spokesperson for Korean shopkeepers looted after the Rodney King verdict, and serves on the Los Angeles human rights commission. Even though she's a baby boomer, she grew up in one of the nation's most multiethnic enclaves, and thinks along those lines.
But esteemed African-American historian John Hope Franklin, professor emeritus at Duke University, responded sharply to Oh's request: "This country cut its eye teeth on black-white relations. Without knowledge of the past, we cannot wisely chart our course for the future." Franklin was born in Oklahoma in 1915. Unlike Oh, he's seen Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement firsthand.
Of course, Franklin and Oh are both right. No one can deny that slavery created both racial income inequalities and the American concept of "blackness" (including the stereotypes of intellectual inferiority) that exist to this day. But we can't think that studying black and white relations alone will give us the keys to a better futurethat future will come in many colors, not in monochrome. However, we can't forget the economic opportunities between blacks and whites during this time of transition. Many blacks and whites fear (with some justification) that in a multiracial America, blacks will simply be pushed to the bottom of a bigger barrel. It doesn't help matters that America's nonwhite groups have so much trouble learning to cooperate. In cities as far flung as New York, Washington, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Oakland, there have been tensions between Latinos and blacks, or blacks and Asians, or all three groups at once. In Houston and Oakland, blacks and Latinos battled for control of the school systems; in Los Angeles and New York, blacks and Asians warred over who should profit from shops in the `hood. But Mexican Americans have joined blacks as scapegoats of the affirmative action wars, and Asians have joined the ranks of those most targeted for hate crimes. While all of these groups are battling each other, they're ignoring one important fact: they're all the common enemy of people who think that one day soon, America will become too nonwhite.
What We See Is What We Fear
The very idea that America will become majority-minority scares the hell out of some people. That's why we find ourselves not only at a point of incredible change, but of incredible fear. The nineties have seen a full-scale backlash against immigrants and nonwhites, both in word and in deed. As the visibility of nonwhites has been rising, hate crimes have toowith attacks on increasingly visible Asian Americans rising the fastest. We're still holding on to the old prejudices: a study by the National Opinion Research Center found that the majority of whites still believe blacks to be inferior (with smaller numbers holding the same views of Southern whites and Hispanics). But the biggest backlash has been in America's policy arena. In 1997, the U.S. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed restrictions not just on illegal but legal immigrants. The debate over affirmative action has turned ugly, with opponents like University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia stating that "blacks and Mexican Americans are not academically competitive with whites" because of "a culture that seems not to encourage achievement." (He later added: "I don't know that it's good for whites to be with the lower classes. I'm afraid it may actually have deleterious effects on their views because they will see people from situations of economic deprivation usually behave less attractively.") Even the basic tenets of the Civil Rights movement are still controversial. Take Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's response when asked by a law professor how he would have ruled on the Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended legal school segregation. Scalia pondered for a momentthen said he might well have decided in favor of the segregated school system.
On the positive side, America's minorities have never been more visible than they are today. They are the athletes and entertainers filling the nation's sports arenas and movie screens, the public officials pushing new policy proposals; they appear in commercials for everything from Tide detergent to, yes, Texaco gasoline. A black, Latino, or Asian-American person is probably part of the local news team that greets you in the morning, then recaps the world's day for you at night. Talk-show host/actress/producer/business mogul Oprah Winfrey is one of the best-liked and highest-paid people in America. On the negative side, compared to the statistics about who commits crimes, the evening news gives us far too many images of bad guys who are black or brown. (Whites are the majority of Americans, and the majority of violent criminals. But too often, the nightly news is filled with back-to-back images of black and Latino perpetrators.)
Images of minoritiesfrequently negative imagesare everywhere. That leads us to the politics of race. We don't have a problem with minorities, right? At least not as long as they're looking for equality. But maybe things have gone too far. Maybe now there's a new racial scapegoatthe white Americans being forced into a shabby, second-class minority status.
The message that America has "gone too far" toward embracing minorities is being shouted out from the lecterns at Washington think tanks and neighborhood bar stools alike. The 1994 national elections, which swept in a right-wing Republican Congress for the first time in forty years, were widely seen as rising from the populace, the revenge of the "angry white male." (A year earlier, a Newsweek cover story on "White Male Paranoia" quoted a retired marketing executive saying, by example, "The white male is the most persecuted person in the United States.") And conservative Washington think tanks have funded a slew of books promoting the idea that America is under dire threat from racial diversity. In his book The End of Racism, Dinesh D'Souza calls for nothing less radical than overturning the Civil Rights Act. And the book Alien Nation, penned by a British immigrant, details how nonwhite immigration is supposedly destroying America.
The biggest-selling race book of the decade was The Bell Curve, which not only polarized the perception of race in America but had a tremendous influence over public policy. (Not incidentally, the conservative Bradley Foundation gave coauthor Charles Murray a nearly million-dollar grant to do his research.) Conservatives like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich blamed the "Great Society" programs for the decline of the inner city and American culture alike.
And don't even bring up the word "multiculturalism" without expecting a political debate. Some young Americans think of multiculturalism as a commonsense approach to America's diversity. Others find it a smarmy, let's-sing-"Kumbaya" way of dealing with racial issues. But virtually none find it worthy of the vitriol expended by opponents. For example, a syndicated piece by U.S. News and World Report columnist John Leo ran with the overwrought headline "A Generation Worse Than Skinheads." Its thesis: young college students are hypnotized by multiculturalism to the point where they lack all morality. Or, as he writes, "In the new multicultural canon, human sacrifice is hard to condemn, because the Aztecs practiced it."
Multiculturalism has become the new evil "ism" many Americans feel compelled to fight. (Racismthe original foeis something we too often try to ignore.) The underlying message of these various attacks on multiculturalism is the same: a fiery, almost hysterical warning of impending doom for America's institutions and culture. Why the vehemence, the fin de siècle venom of the attacks on "minority rights"? Perhaps it's because we're so used to viewing race as conflict. We assume an increasingly nonwhite America can only mean bigger and nastier battles over equality. Or perhaps it's a question of appearance, with the increasing visibility of nonwhites giving rise to fear. Compare today to the `50s and '60s, when nonwhites were not seen or heard on mainstream television and radio. Then consider Disney's 1997 version of the Cinderella story for its Sunday night television show. The cast was exuberantly multiculturalthe Queen, King, and Prince were played by black, white, and Filipino actors respectively. Cinderella herself was played by black actress and pop star Brandy Norwood. All of the bit parts and extras were filled by actors of every racealmost to the point that skin color became an element of the decor.
The images in Cinderella may exaggerate America's current racial mix, but it's hardly part of a plot to destroy American culture. Yet to some, the increasing visibility of minorities presents a threata vision of a nation where power is being wrested from (deserving) whites and given to (undeserving) nonwhites. The subtext is easy to read: whites represent American culture at its purest; nonwhites, either a bastardization of our culture (as with American-born blacks) or a foreign "invasion."
But there's a big difference between visibility and power. The halls of power in America look much like they did half a century ago, before Martin Luther King, Jr., marched to Selma. Ninety-five percent of corporate managementthe presidents, vice presidents, and CEOs who run Americaare white males. Or as Newsweek's article put it: "White males make up just 39.2 percent of the population, yet they account for 82.5 percent of the Forbes 400 (folks worth at least $265 million), 77 percent of Congress, 92 percent of state governors, 70 percent of tenured college faculty, almost 90 percent of daily-newspaper editors, 77 percent of TV news directors." The image of a hostile takeover of America by nonwhite guerrilla forces is patently a lie.
What remains a sad truth is the racial divide in resources and opportunity. Here are just a few statistics from the Census Bureau and other agencies:
* Higher Education: In 1995, 24 percent of whites, 13 percent of blacks, 14 percent of Hispanics, and 9 percent of Native Americans aged twenty-five and older had received a college degree. The figure was 38 percent for Asian/Pacific Islanders, the highest of any racial or ethnic group. That's still an improvement for both blacks and whites over the figures for 1980, when 18 percent of whites and 8 percent of blacks over the age of twenty-five had completed four years or more of college.
* Employment: For decades, the black unemployment rate has been approximately twice that of whites. In 1995, the unemployment rate was 3.3 percent for whites, 6.6 percent for blacks, 5.1 percent for Hispanics, and 3.2 percent for Asian Americans.
* Income: Forty percent of white families earn $50,000 per year or more, versus 21 percent of black families, and 46 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander families (which tend more often to be extended families and include more employed workers).
* Life Expectancy and Infant Mortality: Black life expectancy is sixty-nine years, while white life expectancy is seventy-six years. Likewise, the black infant mortality rate is 16.8 deaths for each one thousand births, more than double the rate for white infants. Yet in the military, where families have equal access to health care, the infant mortality rate is virtually equal among races.
Recent polls indicate that most Americans know little about the profound differences separating the income, health and educational opportunities of Americans of different races. This makes a big difference in how we think of racial issues. Polls show that Americans who believe that blacks and whites have equal incomes and opportunities are much less likely to support programs to end racial discrepancies. Too many of us try to wish away the problem of race instead of confronting it. Instead of attacking the problems of race, we seem intent on attacking nonwhite races, including those members of the next generation who belong to minority ethnic groups.
Stereotyping a Generation
How do these attacks affect young Americans, and why have they now become so fierce? It's no coincidence that today's racial backlash coincides with the rise of this new multiethnic generation. It's as if America has decided to eat its young now that it knows they are not just white but black and brown. This generation's unprecedented racial demographics mark them as unique, as well as a target. Right-wing rhetoric and government action attempt to isolate and divide them: first, from previous, overwhelmingly white generations, and second, against themselveswhite against black, Latino, and Asian. The media uses too many racially charged stereotypes to describe the next generation, but these labels say less about their lives than our need to pigeonhole them.
Consider the terms "slacker" and "Generation X," the latter coined from the Douglas Coupland novel of the same title. One of the earliest articles on Generation X, in 1991, described them as: "invisible ... the Lost Generation ... the in-betweens ... [possessing] no intellectual pride or content." There was a nugget of economic truth behind the slacker myth. The early nineties were some of the worst years for college graduates to find work. But today the term is virtually meaningless. On the other hand, a new stereotype holds all too much coded meaning. The late nineties brought a focus on youth criminals, dubbed the "superpredators" by a Princeton professor. 34 No matter that FBI statistics reveal America's fear of youth is overstated, that the proportion of murders (and all crimes) committed by teens actually dropped in the past decade. This image of a dark-skinned menace to society has become an integral part of how we view the next generation. As Nell Bernstein, the editor of the daring San Francisco teen newspaper YO! wrote: "While the [Generation X] twentysomethings were represented as if they were almost entirely white, their younger siblings have mysteriously become predominantly black and Latino."
Middle-class blacks and Latinos aren't immune to being stereotyped, either. They're described as the coddled affirmative-action babies destroying young white Americans' chances at advancement. The Bell Curve even tries to excuse antiblack sentiment on campus, stating: "Racial clashes on campuses began to surface in the early 1980s and apparently have been growing since then, with the bulk of the difficulties between whites and blacks. A plausible explanation is that whites resent blacks, who are in fact getting a large edge in the admissions process and often in scholarship assistance, and many of whom, as whites look around their own campus and others, `don't belong there' academically."
Yet the 1998 book The Shape of the River by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, the former presidents of Princeton and Harvard, respectively, documents that affirmative action benefited not only blacks but whites as well. Black students who attended the most selective schools in this massive study were even more likely to graduate and to get high-paying jobs than black students with similar test scores who attended less competitive schools. The authors also argue that affirmative action benefits whites by giving them a hands-on experience of integration. But white Americans receive more direct benefits of affirmative action as well. A study of admissions at the public universities in Washington State found that white students made up three-quarters of "special admissions," which take into account race, income, and socioeconomic factors. It was exactly this type of "special admissions" that anti-affirmative-action forces attacked, and dismantled, in Washington's and California's state-run colleges.
Despite evidence to the contrary, youth are still stereotyped as lost, white slackers, psychopathically violent urban youth, and affirmative-action babies. One reason the stereotypes persist is because we see so little in-depth coverage of young adults. One study found that eighteen-to twenty-three-year-olds were virtually absent from most news coverage except in sports and crime stories. The lack of coverage of important issues affecting young Americans makes it clear that we can't rely on traditional sources to accurately portray the next generation. We have to go to the sourceyoung Americans themselves.
The backlash against racial diversity is an attempt to keep America fixed in timedemographically, socially, and culturally. This way of defining diversity as something frivolous at best, dangerous at worst, also represents an attempt to keep young Americans from making their mark on society. Conservative critic Robert Bork, for example, not only vehemently argues against young adults' multiculturalism, but also writes: "Every new generation constitutes a wave of savages who must be civilized by their families, schools, and churches. An exceptionally large generation can swamp the institutions responsible for teaching traditions and standards." From his perspective, today's youth should blindly give themselves over to older visions of American society rather than presuming to think for themselves.
Yet it is precisely the transformative power of youth that has shaped America throughout its history. Our society has been propelled by the desire of each new generation to reinvent our laws, our economy, our culture. It was true from the colonial era to the baby boom generation. We know how much the `boomers, 72 million strong, changed American life. They popularized rock `n' roll, began enthusiastically popping The Pill, and provided both the manpower to fight and the outrage to end the war in Vietnam. Now look at what's next. The young multiethnic generation coming of age today is the cusp of the "baby boomlet," estimated at 79 million people. They're already starting to change the social values of our society. As an article in American Demographics put it, this is "the first generation to accept mixed races, `nontraditional' families, and gender-bending sex roles as mainstream."
A look at the issue of multiracial identity shows how this generation is helping to reshape social policy as well. There are few concepts more entrenched in this nation than the notion of distinct racial categories. By U.S. law codified during slavery days, anyone with "one drop" of black blood was considered black. It's not just an ancient concept, either. As recently as 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana woman who was 3/32 black was legally black. But over the course of the past two decades, mixed-race Americans and their parents have made ever stronger appeals to be recognized as multiracial.
In October 1997, after a heated debate between traditional civil rights groups and ones representing mixed-race individuals, the U.S. Census weighed in. For Census 2000, Americans may mark themselves as several racesblack, white, and Native American, for example. But they may not mark themselves as multiracial. This issue hit the national radar screen because there are more mixed-race Americans than evermost of them young. And it should come as no surprise that the most high-profile person to speak out during the Census debate was a member of the next generation: a twenty-one-year-old golfer named Tiger Woods. While he was growing up, Woods invented a word, "Cablinasian," to sum up his Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian heritage. (His mother is Thai and his father is black with white and Indian blood.) But Woods's statements continue to cause controversy. To put it bluntly, Woods looks black. Though he's of mixed heritage, most people continue to classify him as a "black golfer"and many African Americans felt aggravated that he chose not to identify himself as such. Whatever you feel about his choice, Woods and other young mixed-race Americans symbolize the unique place of this generationtaking issues that we've debated for centuries and pushing them to the next level. They form a bridge between one understanding of race and another, the old America and the new.
Of course, none of us knows exactly what this new America will look like, or how it will function. The increasing number of mixed-race Americans could develop a new racial category, or they could choose to group themselves among the ones that exist now. Growing communities of South Asians and Middle Easterners, who span the spectrum of skin color, may end up assimilating largely into white America, or find commonalties with black America, or neither. In some cities where blacks and Latinos share neighborhoods and socioeconomic statuses, they get along (and intermarry); in many others, they're rivals. And of course, the way white Americans act and react to these changes will shape much of the debate. With California's Proposition 187, whites and Mexican Americans found themselves on opposite sides of the immigration debate. In 1998, California voters dismantled bilingual immigration. And in 1996, another California referendum, Proposition 209, ended affirmative action in the state. Despite a handful of black, Asian, and Latino spokespeople, the bulk of affirmative-action opponents are white. But in 1997, the white mayor of Houston, Bob Lanier, defended affirmative action and successfully helped push for the election of the city's first black mayor, Lee Brown. These days, there are no givens in the race game, no unshakeable alliances or unchangeable opinions. The one thing that we can all do to help understand where we're headed is to get a sense of how other Americans are living their lives.
With no one racial reality in America, we are left to interpret the national debates through our personal experiences. We're "placed" in a racial context on at least three levels: geographically, socioeconomically, and by personal choice. Geographically, race is regional. In the Northeast and Southeast, race tends to run on a black-white axis. In the Southwest, it's often Anglo-Mexican American. In parts of the Rockies, it's white-Indian. And in California, it tends to be a four- or five-way free-for- all. Socioeconomically, whether people live in cities, suburbs, or rural areas (and how rich or poor those areas are) greatly affects their experiences with race. The tensions are often more overt in poorer areas, more hidden (though not necessarily nonexistent) in richer neighborhoods. And finally, as we enter the twenty-first century, race is increasingly a matter of "placing" yourself in a context, choosing your own place in the racial hierarchy.
Through a Reporter's Eyes
When it comes to media's portrayals of race, we're missing the hottest story of our time. What we're missing is the future of race today, the clear, unmistakable signs that America is in the midst of a massive change. We're missing the story because we think we know what race is about and we've heard all the bad news beforetensions between blacks and whites, immigration run amok, white fears of reverse discrimination. We're so mired in one way of thinking that we can't see the future that lies right in front of our eyes.
My approach to reporting this national story is hardly unique, but it is controversial. Usually a reporter is forced to choose one perspective on a subjectinsider or outsider, a member of the group being examined or a dispassionate observer of it. I see myself differently, as a passionate observer who hopes to bring a reporter's eye to a story I care deeply about. I've tried to many the analytical and the personal, the hard facts about American life and the emotional realities of how we see race today. In the second section of the book, I gather different perspectives on what "race" means to different Americans and how it affects their lives. Because race is so dependent on place, I decided to crisscross the country to get different images of American life. Hanging out in Delphi, Indianagoing to the Dairy Queen, high school graduation parties, meeting people's familiesgave me one view of American life. Spending time with mixed-race twentysomethings in fast-paced Los Angeles gave me another. In the third part of the book, I focus on what happens when teens and young adults are drawn into larger controversies like the end of affirmative action at Berkeley or life on the border in El Paso, Texas.
In some ways, I needed to go no further than my own hometown to see evidence of these changes. These days, on my frequent trips back to Baltimore I see East Indian, Latino, Asian, and Arab families strolling through the local mall. When I rushed to the mall more than a decade ago to buy back-to-school clothes, all of the faces were black or white. America is changingcity by city, school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood.
I see the political as personal as well. During the 1996 presidential campaign season, I was a political commentator for CNN. One night, at a gathering with other young political analysts, I had a conversation with an editor of the conservative National Review. Halfway through dinner, the editor started talking about race. Wasn't it obvious that blacks now have an unfair advantage in the job marketand that includes the media business? "Well, only five percent of newspaper reporters are black, and only two percent of magazine editors are black, so I don't see where you're coming from," I replied. Where he was coming from, he said, was the clear evidence that affirmative action had created a nation ruled by reverse discrimination. We now lived in a country where talented white men didn't have a chance against blacks competing for the same slots. "Hmmm," I said. "That must be why when I was at Newsweek, only five of the one hundred reporters there were black." The editor shot me a look of half-admiring exasperation. "You're very good with the numbers. But how can it be that what you believe is so at odds with the lives people are leading today?"
"Well," I said, "It depends on whose lives you examine."
The truth is this: the "truth" depends on whose lives you examine. Most of the time, especially on important and controversial issues like race, we get the most input from older middle- and upper-class white guys. It's not that their input isn't important, but there's a lot more to this nation. The lives of nonwhites aren't usually examined with the same rigor or fairness as those of whites. And today, the lives of the next generation aren't being examined nearly often enough or well enough. Maybe that's because this generation doesn't offer us easy answers, only more questions. Are they more tolerant than previous generations? Many of them. Are they absorbing the rancor of the racial debates and turning against each other? Some. Are they leading us down roads we've never taken before? Definitely.
If we understand that how we see race depends on the lives we examine, it's also worth taking a look at who's doing the examining. Most books on race are written by whites, about blacks and whites. Many are written by blacks, also about blacks and whites. Where's the rest of the picture? Even though my interest in race comes directly out of my perspective as an African American, I realize it serves us no better than it does whites to ignore the growth of other communities. Blacks have become a kind of "everyminority"highly visible, often attacked, occasionally rewarded for our high profile. Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans have the opposite problem; they don't register as often on the national radar. Young Americans of all racesand especially those who are neither black nor whiteare the most ignored of all.
This generationnot just white but black, Latino, Asian, and Native American; not just native born but immigrantis both the inheritor and the architect of American culture. Today's young adults are paying the price for being different, growing up in an era where the diversity they represent is feared. We can only hope that they will chart a better course for race relations than Americans have in the past, that they will help lead us away from our centuries-long battles. If they do forge a new American unity, it will be because they've learned to work within the multiethnic nation we inhabit, rather than denying or decrying its very existence. Will they learn to work together? Will they yield to or rebel against the wishes of the generations before them? And how will their vision of American life reshape our culture? No one can answer these questions but this generation itself.
What People are saying about this
Author of Hard Left: Straight Talk About the Wrongs of the Right and host of "BET Tonight."
Meet the Author
Farai Chideya is an ABC News correspondent who covers a range of issues from youth to race to politics and the author of the highly acclaimed book Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation about African Americans. She is a contributor to Time and to Vibe, which covers urban issues and culture. Chideya has been a writer at MTV News, a CNN political analyst, and a reporter for Newsweek. She lives in New York City.
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