The main narrative about the District of Columbia’s transformation from Chocolate to Multigrain City has been about racial tensions surrounding gentrification. By 2020, I suspect an entirely different storyline will emerge about the city’s race relations — that of the rising cultural dexterity that occurs in spaces where no one group is dominant. Cultural dexterity, a phrase I coined, is the ability to walk into a room and be outnumbered by people of a different race or ethnicity and experience excitement rather than fright. If you have recently had a meal in the home of someone of a different race you are probably culturally dexterous.
Culturally dexterous people are the least prejudiced among us. I call them ardent integrators. They are the kind of “dangerous” people anti-miscegenation laws of yesteryear were designed for. They move toward rather than away from difference and they accelerate the racial enlightenment of those around them, like the grandparents of biracial children.
I recently observed a pair of ardent integrators at the Mac store in Georgetown. Waiting to get to the Genius Bar, a hoodied, average-looking white guy waited on a bar stool, his knees entwined with those of his dark-skinned girlfriend. Her hair was short and natural. She did not have the Beyoncé look favored by NBA players, but her white man clearly cherished her, and his Cheshire grin conveyed the giddiness of early love. Although interracial dating is not new in the District, black girls with their adoring white guys may be the latest example of the widening of cultural horizons that comes with dense diversity.
Another example: A white gay couple and their black princess-daughter I saw walking along 14th Street. They and other interracial families on the streets of D.C. are not an aberration. In 2007, according to the first-ever National Survey of Adoptive Parents, conducted by the federal government, 40 percent of adopted children were of a different race, ethnicity or culture than their adoptive parents.
Of course, ardent integrators are not limited to D.C. Evidence from the Pew Research Center suggests that interracial intimacy is poised to explode in America — from dating and marriage to adoption to genuine friendship that’s not of the Facebook kind. Nearly all young adults born after 1980 say they are “fine” with interracial marriage, and 85 percent of them are personally open to marrying someone of any other racial group. Most millennials also have friends of a different race. Among white millennials, 56 percent have black friends, compared to just 36 percent of whites ages 50 to 64. Arguably, younger generations express and live more racial tolerance than do their parents because their demographic cohort is more diverse. Those babies born in 2012, America’s first “majority-minority” generation, will create a multicultural milieu that baby boomers couldn’t imagine.
This has profound implications for race relations and politics. Whites who have developed an enhanced capacity for interracial dealings are quite similar to people of color in their vision for this country. According to social psychology research, whites, like people of color, tend to ground their perceptions about racial progress not to our success in dismantling Jim Crow but to a future ideal of full equality for all. They are apt to say in opinion polls, as do people of color, that more racial progress is needed, and they are more likely than less dexterous whites to support policies designed to promote diversity and reduce inequality.
Social psychologists have also demonstrated that people with friends of another racial or ethnic group tend to be less racist. This gives me hope for race relations in D.C. and our nation. It also makes me hopeful that ardent integrators will soon lead us out of the gridlock that permeates official Washington. In blunt terms, with each passing decade, as the ranks of culturally dexterous whites and center-left leaning citizens of color swell, it will be easier for multiracial coalitions to get to 51 percent.
The bad news is that exploiting racial fear is often easier than the labor intensive work of transcending it. Nationally, it is whites who must adjust to becoming one voice among many. In D.C., African Americans are the ones experiencing a loss of majority power. Fortunately, ardent integrators are replacing tired scripts about race. They willingly accommodate to difference and accept that in environs where no one group is dominant, negotiation, collaboration and sometimes compromise is required. With pervasive diversity, all institutions and individuals will be forced to undertake this emotional work, or risk irrelevance.
Sheryll Cashin is a Georgetown law professor and author of “The Failures of Integration.” She was a law clerk to Thurgood Marshall and has been a D.C. resident since 1989. Follow her on Twitter: @SheryllCashin.
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