Identity in America: Are Perspectives Shifting?

blending cultureBlending cultures may be redefining what it means to be American
By Sonya Weakley

The number of Americans of more than one race is rapidly growing — a result, in part, of the growing population of diverse cultures. “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”
— President Barack Obama, January 20, 2009

WASHINGTON ( RushPRnews) 02/11/09-— Multicultural, plural, post-ethnic, post-racial. While these descriptors are widely debated among American scholars, writers, politicians and others, it is usually not debated that with the possible exception of the American Indian, to be American is to be, genealogically speaking, from somewhere else in the world.

“Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.”
— John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants, 1958

In addition, the heritage of individual Americans increasingly is from more than one part of the patchwork that is the fabric of America. Questions such as “Where are you from?” or “What is your background?” can draw complex responses as these individuals use words to identify themselves such as “multiracial,” “multiethnic” or “hybrid.”

IVC Inc.As a result of the mingling of many ethnicities, America may be evolving from a multicultural nation to a nation of multicultural people. According to the United States Census Bureau, by 2050, the total “minority” population, which includes everyone except non-Hispanic, single-race whites, is projected to be 235.7 million out of a total U.S. population of 439 million, or nearly 54 percent.

Accordingly, the number of Americans who identify themselves as being of two or more races is projected to more than triple, from 5.2 million in 2008 to 16.2 million in 2050. The Census Bureau started collecting multiracial information in 2000, when census respondents were for the first time given the option of identifying themselves in more than one category in the question on race.

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget decided in 1997 that “mark one or more races” should be included in the census based on “evidence of increasing numbers of children from interracial unions and the need to measure the increased diversity in the United States,” according to the Census Bureau.

The decision sparked debate in America on the social and political impact of creating so many categories of race, but it also brought the idea of multiracial identity to the country’s collective consciousness. With the election of President Obama, who is of mixed race, the question of race or ethnicity, how much it matters and what Americans think about it has become a popular topic for discussion.

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White man sitting with interracial child (AP Images)
The 2000 U.S. Census gave respondents the option of identifying themselves in more than one category of race for the first time.

SO WHO IS AN AMERICAN?

For the month of February, America.gov is joining the discussion and exploring how the ever-increasing diversity of the U.S. population is affecting the way Americans identify themselves. Can Americans choose how and when to use ethnic heritage in describing themselves? If so, how do they decide which ethnicity to use? Can Americans choose not to be identified by any ethnicity or to use other social descriptors? Are all these choices part of being American?

A number of recent polls and other reports point to trends indicating shifts in American attitudes toward race and ethnicity that may be influencing how Americans think about their identities.

In an ABC News poll conducted December 19, 2008, to January 4, 2009, more than half the respondents who were black said they think of themselves first as American. That 51 percent is up from 46 percent in September 2008. Blacks age 50 and older call themselves American first by a margin of 2 to 1.

In an October 2008 poll by the American Anti-Defamation League, 66 percent of respondents see the growth in “minority” populations in the United States as an advantage in building a strong economy. In 1992, only 39 percent held that view.

In his September 2008 report titled “The Kerner Commission Report Plus Four Decades: What Has Changed? What Has Not?,” Reynolds Farley, a sociologist at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, details a number of “pervasive changes in the racial attitudes and beliefs of whites” and cites the significant increase in interracial marriages as an example.

In 1968, when the Kerner Commission, established by President Johnson to investigate the causes of race riots, issued its report, about 1 percent of black married men had white spouses. In 2006, that proportion had increased to 14 percent, Farley reports.

He also notes that in the 1996 General Social Survey by the University of Chicago, 92 percent of white respondents said they would vote for a black presidential candidate if their party nominated a qualified one.

JOIN THE JOURNEY

During February, America.gov will consider ideas and thoughts on race, ethnicity and identity through various elements, including pieces on the role of blogs in fueling the discussion and how public exhibits are introducing new ways of thinking, a review of American immigration history, a photo essay of people whose quotes provide food for thought, first-person documentation of personal experiences, videos of people who share their insights, interactive tools and more.

Come explore identity and diversity with America.gov.


photo AP