Brooks, Mutts, and American Identity

Presumably responding to the passage of the recent immigration bill in the Senate, Today David Brooks provided a somewhat well-worn assertion that America is a nation of “mutts.” Pointing to the climbing numbers of interracial marriage, particularly among the college educated, Brooks suggests we are moving toward an exciting future where ethnic lines are being transcended. Underlying these shifts lies the possibility of the ethnic minority not being a cohesive whole, but somewhat fragmented and conflictual. On the whole Brooks points to a possibility that

“Finally, it would make sense that the religion of diversity, which dominates the ethos of our schools, would give way to an ethos of civic cohesion. We won’t have to celebrate diversity because it will be a fact. The problem will be finding the 21st-century thing that binds the fluid network of ethnic cells.”

While I am not a fan Brooks’ invocation of the breeding language “mutt,” I don’t want to quibble with his word choice. What I find interesting is the way in which his logic still relies on a biological framework and ultimately distorts the challenge America actually faces in its shifting demographics. The implicit hope that underlies Brooks’ piece is that in the increasing patterns of intermarriage, America will come to find itself with a greater sense of cohesion and unity. Diversity will not be something that we strive for, it will be something of our biological character. The problematic aspect to this will be the ways that poorer, less educated do not intermarry, thus creating tensions along different lines. Brooks suggests,

“The big divides could be along educational lines, not ethnic ones. Because educated people intermarry at higher rates, we could have an educated cosmopolitan class with low ethnic boundaries and a fair bit of integration in white-collar workplaces. Then, underneath, there could be a less-educated, more-balkanized layer, with high residential and professional segregation and more ethnic hostility.”

Brooks is not the first to suggest that the problem of race and ethnicity is not actually about race, but class. This was certainly at work in the tragic treatment of Rachel Jeantel during the George Zimmerman trial, by white and blacks alike in social media. But as one commentator noted what is the difference between Ms. Jeantel and Honey Boo-Boo? The power of representation is working differently in each of these cases and this difference is crucial. And this is what I think Brooks is missing in his analysis.

Brooks is missing the underlying reality of how race works. Race is not simply a matter of biology, but a claim that is forged within two powerful movements: what we try to say about ourselves and what others say we are. For some, these claims are consonant and harmonious. But for others, especially ethnic minorities, these forces are working against one another as we navigate the gendered modes of identification, or the expectations of immigrant parents, or the ubiquity of white norms of beauty in entertainment.

Whether we intermarry or not, we must negotiate these realities. We do so by trying to anchor ourselves to a story, to a hope. For Irish, Italian, Polish immigrants they anchored themselves to the hope of being seen as “American.” They did this by dropping their anchor on the backs of blacks, establishing their identity as “white” on their difference from African Americans in their midst. This has been no different for interracial children either.

The story of the interracial child is fraught with problematic assertions of who we are and who we are not. The “mulattos” of the American slave system negotiated these realities sometimes by fighting against the moniker of black and negro, creating sub-societies and seeking to only marry others “like” them. While the larger white society would not allow them to become white, they were often determined to be “not black.”

In our contemporary moment this is not the case for all and the history of the interracial child is evolving even as we speak. But the point is that interracial identity does not alleviate the need to see how our identities are the compilation of acts, commitments, hopes, desires, and the facts of our bodies. Perhaps we will see a greater divide along lines of class, but we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that interracial somehow mitigates the intentional steps we must take to see how we participate in oppressive systems or promote ideologies that have the alienation of others at its heart.

To forget how race is always an enactment is to forget the ways that the concept of whiteness, despite its own interbred reality, served to alienate generations of people through its normalcy.

As an interracial person I do not believe that my biology is the future. But as an interracial person I do know that my identity is a series of decisions, commitments, loves, and practices of solidarity. This is a challenge for all people in the United States, to begin to see the choices that are before us everyday, to see our identities as not biologically tied together as an amalgam, but to see our lives as the ground for an the enactment of love and mutuality. If there is any benefit to being interracial it is simply that we have the decision of who we are going to be for, clearly in front of us each day.

If America is going to embrace its interracial reality perhaps we should not begin with our biology, but with a question of who we will be for. As of now we are answering this question with the proliferation of drone strikes, an industrialized criminal justice system, systematic degradation of our education system, and an obsession with identifying terrorists in our midst. We will need to be more than “mutts” to have a hopeful future