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Diane W. Mufson: Nation's racial face is changing rapidly

Aug. 27, 2013 @ 08:41 AM

Last month, an economics reporter for The New York Times, Shaila Dewan, wrote an article that piqued my curiosity. It was titled, "Has 'Caucasian' Lost its Meaning?" It made it obvious that the way Americans, and much of the world, label racial identity must change.

The term "Caucasian" is typically used synonymously for the white race; it is attributed to a German anthropologist, Johann Friedrick Blumenbach. In the late 1700s, he determined that "the most beautiful race of men" came from the Caucasus (hence Caucasian) region of Georgia, which for many years was part of the Soviet Union.

Obviously, Caucasian is an archaic term and the concept that we are a "Caucasian" nation is outdated as well.

According to the recent U.S. Census, for the first time ever, more than half of children under one year of age belong to a minority group. Today's minority groups reflect not only those traditionally defined ones, but also those with multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Back in the "olden days" many of us were taught that there were five racial groups: Caucasian/white, black, brown, yellow and red. Even as young kids, some of us thought this color-coding was weird. Perhaps, it was what led to the idea that people from space and, certainly Martians, would be "green."

"Caucasian" apparently fell out of popular use for years, but has made a comeback because some folks see it less "racist" than using the word "white." Of course, white itself is not an absolute. Some things and people are considered "whiter" than others; consider the varieties of white paint.

Over the years our country has used various racial classifications to count its citizens and residents. Recently, the Census Bureau employed racial categories of Black (African-American), White, Hispanic, Asian, American-Indian/Alaska Native and native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. The problem with this is that Americans are becoming more multi-racial and the categories of "other" or "more than one group" are growing rapidly.

Traditional racial delineations will encounter difficulties in the future. According to the Pew Research Group, racial intermarriage has grown significantly in this country. Three decades ago fewer than 7 percent of marriages were interracial; that figure has doubled in recent years and in the western part of our nation it exceeds 20 percent. Interaction among people from different racial groups leads to understanding, liking and even loving people different from our own racial identity.

Categorizing people by race has some similarities to sorting people by caste, economic level and country of origin or religion. Each of these attributes offers a way to make sure that one group retains or gains power and others achieve and receive less of their share of life's bounties.

In most of the world, if by virtue of your physical appearance you were born into the "top" group, life was good and you worked to keep the status quo. But as work, interaction, travel and immigration patterns have changed, people who would never have had close contact with those of very different backgrounds do so frequently.

While some people are distressed to see these changes, younger and more educated folks are accepting of evolving racial patterns. Many understand that as we live longer in the 21st century, traditional separations by race and other personal attributes no longer hold the power they once did. As the outdated term "Caucasian" brings to light, America's racial face is changing.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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