The Ever-Changing American 'Race'

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A 1936 author predicts that the descendents of immigrants will blend into a new, superior American "type"

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Seventy-five years ago this month, The Atlantic published an anonymous essay called "American Type," in which the author is astounded to learn that a fellow train passenger -- a Mr. Paul Washington -- is a multiracial American. "One grandfather was born in England," the author marvels, "the other in Germany; one grandmother in France, the other in Ireland."

In 1936, a man with Mr. Washington's pedigree must have been something of a novelty. The author, a man who knew the country "before the income tax," could trace his entire ancestry back to Wiltshire County, England. But he was a progressive thinker who had witnessed the massive influx of European immigrants at the turn of the century, and he thought the result -- represented by Mr. Washington -- was good for the nation:

Obviously here is a man altogether American. Unlike myself, he could never think of himself as anything other than American. Unified by multiplicity, he is indigenous as a tree, and like a tree is without fear or doubt. For him there can never be a cloying question whether America is right or wrong; he is America, and America is he.

Today, Mr. Washington's heritage seems much less exotic. The 2010 census form included 14 race options in total - among them Guamanian, Samoan, Aleut, and a box for "other." There were no options for Irish, English, or French, or even European in general.

Jefferson Fish, professor emeritus of psychology at St. John's university, and a contributor to a current exhibit on race at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, says race is a social, not biological, concept that is continually being redefined. "If you go back to 1900 when the big wave of migration from Eastern and Southern Europe came here, I would say Jews and Italians were not considered white," Fish says. "Now they're white."

Meanwhile, today's American has ancestry more diverse than the Atlantic author might ever have imagined. According to the latest census data, 9 million Americans -- approximately 2.9 percent of the population -- identify with two or more racial demographics. As a New York Times report put it earlier this year, today's college students are "the largest group of mixed-race people to ever come of age in the United States."

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These younger Americans are also more comfortable with interracial marriage than any generation before them. Last year, a Pew  study reported that 85 percent of millennials would have no problem with a member of a different race marrying into their families. Their level of acceptance was significantly higher than that of their parents or grandparents: 55 percent of 50-to-64 year-olds, and only 38 percent of people 65 and older, felt comfortable with the idea of a family member entering into an interracial marriage.

"In just one generation, or two generations, from my upbringing to these kids today, you've gotten a change in the principle in racial classifications," Fish says.

As to the Atlantic author's prediction -- that immigration and intermarriage would eventually create a new, homogenized American "type" -- Fish says it's hard to say. It is possible, he says, that an even more diverse array of skin tones will appear with the coming generations.
 
"How will the term 'race' evolve in its cultural use in the United States, and how will the results of immigration and intermarriage change the physical appearance of people in the United States?" he asks. "Those are two separate questions, but they are intertwined."

Read the full text of "American Type" here

Images: Wikimedia Commons, Pew Research Center

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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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