Myth of the Melting Pot

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  • Part One: One Nation, Indivisible?
  • Part Two: In L.A., a Sense of Future Conflicts
  • Part Three: Immigrants Shunning Idea of Assimilation
  • Part Four: Sweat of Their Brows Reshapes Economy
  • Part Five: A White Migration North From Miami
  • Part Six: Interracial Marriages Eroding Barriers

  • Graphs showing ethnic shifts and the number of residents born abroad

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  • America's Racial and Ethnic Divides

    Interracial Marriages Eroding Barriers

    Beverly O'mara
    Mark Uriu, far right, and Beverly O'Mara, second from left, have no regrets about their mixed-race marriage. Their children are: Moses, 13, left; Will, 7, front; and Markel, 10. (Mitsu Yasukawa — The Washington Post)
    By Michael A. Fletcher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 28, 1998; Page A1

    Latest in a series of occasional articles
    MONTCLAIR, N.J. Some see it as a demographic shift that will irreparably tear at the fabric that binds Americans, this vast influx of immigrants who for more than two decades have been streaming across the nation's borders. President Clinton appointed a commission to help the country absorb its new multicultural citizenry, a flurry of new books have questioned the very premise of the fabled melting pot, and several social historians are now asking whether the country is on the verge of becoming a Balkanized nation with shared geography but no common identity.

    Yet the mounting fears of ethnic divide are being answered by a force of potentially equal might: the enormous rate at which couples of different races and ethnicities are marrying one another.

    Since 1960 the number of interracial couples in the United States has increased more than tenfold, to 1.6 million, including marriages involving Hispanics. Such unions now account for about 4 percent of U.S. marriages, a share that is expected to mushroom in coming years and that is already offering powerful evidence that many Americans are jettisoning old prejudices as never before.

    "I think we are at the edge of a major change in how we think of race in the United States," said Reynolds Farley, a demographer with the Russell Sage Foundation. "Potentially, race could lose much of its meaning in this country much like ethnicity has" for whites.

    In open-minded suburbs such as Montclair, outside New York City, mixed-race couples like Elizabeth Seaton and Sietze Frankfort are so common that they rarely turn heads. The school system here has even started offering seminars to address the concerns of multiracial children.

    Frankfort, the product of a union between his Indonesian mother and Dutch father, says he knew his family would readily accept his new girlfriend. But Seaton's family was another matter.

    "I was nervous," said Seaton. "My father has attitude. He carries on about other ethnic and racial groups, particularly black folks and Jews."

    But when Frankfort finally met his girlfriend's father, things turned out fine. And for the 18 years the couple has been married, Seaton's father, like the rest of her family, has been nothing but warm toward her husband.

    Interracial marriages like this one still represent only a small percentage of all unions. But their very presence and the mixed-race children they produce are gradually blurring the racial boundaries that have long divided the nation.

    Changing Attitudes

    Not only are interracial unions complicating predictions about the future racial makeup of the nation, they are calling into question widely understood concepts of race.

    The rates of intermarriage among many minorities now rival those of second-generation immigrants whose parents came to America in the decades near the turn of the century. Intermarriage among the descendants of those early immigrants over time all but erased ethnic stereotypes that once defined white Americans. Where white ethnicity was once a salient feature in American life, the 1990 census found that only one in five white couples share the same ethnic heritage. "Nobody talks about balancing a political ticket with an Irish or an Italian anymore," Farley says.

    Interracial relationships still stir racist passions. In 1992, for instance, the volunteer coordinator of Patrick J. Buchanan's Republican presidential campaign in New Jersey was removed after he compared mixed marriages to the cross-breeding of animals. And it was only three decades ago, in 1967, that the Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, wiping those statutes off the books in Virginia and 15 other states. But the sentiments that undergirded those laws are increasingly giving way to interracial tolerance.

    That is likely to be even more true as the nation's Hispanic and Asian American populations continue to grow. Many of the new immigrants come from countries with mixed-race traditions. Some analysts say that makes them more open to interracial marriage, particularly to whites.

    In much of Latin America, for example, marrying a person of lighter skin color is considered a move up the social ladder. Some Latinos invoke the phrase, mejorando la raza, improving the race, to signal their approval.

    "There is a bit of colorism in the [Latino] community," says Greta Gilbertson, a Fordham University professor. "It is often times perceived as prestigious to marry outside of the group. And if that person happens to be white, so much the better."

    Today, almost one-third of U.S.-born Hispanics ages 25 to 34 are married to non-Hispanic whites. In addition, 36 percent of young Asian Pacific American men born in the United States marry white women, and 45 percent of U.S.-born Asian Pacific American women took white husbands. The vast majority of Native Americans also marry whites.

    Glenn Shimamoto, a second-generation Japanese American who grew up near Pittsburgh but now lives here in Montclair, says his race was only a factor on the rare occasions when he was confronted with racist name-calling and insults from "the small group of guys who were known for that." Otherwise, he saw his life as largely indistinguishable from those of his white neighbors.

    "Virtually all my dates would be with white girls, save for the enforced date or two with the other Japanese student who may have been around," said Shimamoto, now 46. "But I remember no social or family pressure to date or not date girls of a certain race."

    He met his future wife, Belinda, a tall, lean woman of English, Irish and Scottish heritage, while they were graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. They both were studious and introspective, and they shared an academic interest in energy management policy and a love of the outdoors. In time, romance blossomed. And if race was an issue, it seldom emerged from the background.

    "When I would talk about him at home, my parents might say something like, 'Glenn, he's the Oriental boy, isn't he?'" Belinda Shimamoto said.

    By the time they got married, their families approved. And in the 17 years the couple has been together, they say they have lived peacefully, mostly in white, suburban neighborhoods.

    "It's funny," said Belinda Shimamoto. "But it probably was a bigger deal when my Irish Catholic mother married my British Protestant father."

    New Definitions

    The high rates of interracial marriage and evolving notions of race have recently forced the federal government to rethink the types of categories and classifications it will use in the 2000 census.

    Under pressure from mixed-race Americans and their parents, the Census Bureau changed its rules to allow people to identify themselves by as many of the five official racial reporting categories as they see fit. And there is no telling how the children of interracial unions will identify themselves in the future, as their concepts of racial identity grow increasingly fluid.

    Almost one in three of the children whose fathers are white and mothers black identified themselves as white, according to an analysis of 1990 census data done by Harvard University sociologist Mary C. Waters. That was almost a 50 percent increase over 1980, when fewer than one in four of the children with black mothers and white fathers were identified as white a surprising change in a nation that for generations promoted the idea that even one drop of black blood makes someone black.

    Similarly, half of the children of white fathers and Native American mothers were identified as white, while more than half of the children of white fathers and Japanese or Chinese mothers were listed as white in 1990. "There is no one rule governing the choices made by parents about mixed-race children's identities," Waters said.

    Yet if a picture is beginning to emerge of racial and ethnic melding, one group is noticeably absent: African Americans. Rates of interracial marriage involving blacks, while increasing, remain far lower than those of other racial minorities. Fewer than one in 10 black men and one in 25 black women aged 25 to 34 took white spouses, according to the 1990 census.

    Some observers fear that the emerging portrait points to a future where many African Americans will still find themselves on the other side of a color line. But rather than separating them from whites, this line could separate blacks from everyone else.

    "In the America of the middle of the next century it might look like the race problem is a black problem and these other groups maybe followed some other kind of model into some kind of pluralistic acceptance," says Roderick Harrison, a Census Bureau demographer who is compiling a data bank for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank.

    Harrison and others say the differences in intermarriage rates between blacks and other minorities illustrate the larger fact that disproportionate numbers of blacks remain outside the American mainstream.

    When it comes to housing, blacks are the most segregated of the nation's racial minorities, "by orders of magnitude," says Rebecca M. Blank, a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, which recently compiled a report documenting the nation's racial dynamics. On average, blacks live in neighborhoods that are 60 percent black, while Hispanics and Asian Americans tend to live in far more diverse neighborhoods.

    "When you are talking about Asian or Hispanic middle classes moving into neighborhoods, you don't see the same tripping mechanism causing whites to move out that you see with blacks," Harrison said. "These things suggest that the black-white color line is still with us and that the integration of blacks is going to be a different story than the assimilation of Asians and Hispanics."

    The explanation in part lies in the reality that many blacks are more resistant than other minorities to the idea of marrying whites. To many African Americans, say researchers who have studied the issue, to marry a white is to betray their race, an attitude that is less prevalent among Asian Americans and Hispanics.

    In most cases, sociologists say that sense of racial solidarity has developed in reaction to attitudes projected by the larger society, which historically has viewed blacks as members of some lower caste. A Washington Post poll taken last summer, for example, found that nearly one in four Americans still found marriages between blacks and whites "unacceptable." Other polls have found people more tolerant of white marriages to Latinos and Asian Americans.

    Elizabeth Seaton says she got a glimpse of that anti-black sentiment even as she fretted about how her Indonesian boyfriend was received by her father. For weeks after meeting him, her father said nothing. Then he broke his silence by offering his backhanded approval. "Well," he said, turning to his daughter, "at least he isn't black."

    It is a feeling often shared by some Latinos and Asian Americans who say they encounter far less resistance to relationships with whites than to those with blacks.

    When Grace Chow Grund, a Singapore-born Chinese American, met Curtis Grund, who is white, there was no clue that they would end up in Montclair sharing a house, a mortgage and four children.

    First, there was the question of race. "When we met, I wondered if he would be interested in me, because I am Chinese," says Grace Grund, a former modern dancer who is now a homemaker.

    But the couple soon found that they shared common ground. Grace Grund's grandfather had been a Methodist minister. Curtis Grund had grown up Methodist, and now works supervising missionaries. Still, when he decided to mention his new girlfriend to his parents, he says, "I hesitated a little bit."

    Grace Grund says it was also difficult when her 6-foot-4 boyfriend met her parents, who were originally from Southeast Asia but now live near San Francisco. "They never referred to him by his name," she said with an uneasy laugh. "They just called him the tall one." When a sensitive subject arose, her parents would switch from talking English to Chinese in his presence.

    When she announced that she planned to marry Grund, her parents urged caution. They said she should think about the children. Eventually, they grew to accept the idea. But had her fiance been black, Grace Grund says her parents undoubtedly would have objected.

    "Sure, it would have been different," she said. "My parents have a terrible prejudice against black people. Had Curtis been black, it would have been Chinese the entire evening."

    Children's Identities

    In seven years of marriage, Grund and his wife say they have encountered little trouble because of their relationship, which they attribute to the unique social mix found in Montclair, a place Interrace Magazine named the nation's best place for mixed-race couples. Still, they worry about how their children will define themselves racially.

    "I don't want my children's Chinese identity to be lost," she said. "The white identity is so strong in this country. Right now, they say they are half Chinese, not half white. But at some point, I wonder if they are going to look at themselves and say I am either one or the other, or neither."

    The idea that mixed-race children would have a difficult time fitting into society is just one of many arguments Mark Uriu heard against interracial marriage as he grew up in Los Angeles. There, his family often shared the pain of the racial scars left by the discrimination they had endured as Japanese Americans during World War II.

    "I got the lecture every day about being sent to the [internment] camps, about someone who went to MIT, graduated in the top 10 percent of his class but could not get a job," said Uriu. "Needless to say, I got some not-so-subtle pressure to marry Asian."

    But the pressure never worked on Uriu. Instead, he dated the girls he was attracted to and many of them happened to be white. Fourteen years ago, he married Beverly O'Mara, a red-haired Irish Catholic he met in a college art class. And the couple has no regrets.

    But they, too, worry about where their three children will fit in the nation's fast-changing racial tapestry.

    Once, while shooting baskets on a Manhattan playground with a friend, their eldest son was accosted by a group of boys who first teased him, then threatened to beat him up because he was "Chinese." The incident ended in angry words, but it left the boy shaken and perplexed. When he and his friend were asked about the boys who had confronted them, they hesitated, before one of them said: "I think they were brown."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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