FALLS CHURCH, VA. — Talking across racial lines is a struggle for many Americans. But for teenagers Heather Alsop and David Lee, the dialogue is eased immensely by a common language: love.
Heather, who is white, and David, who is black, are among a rapidly growing number of American teens who date interracially.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 57 percent of US teens who date say they have gone out with a person from another race or ethnic group. That compares with 17 percent in 1980 (but that poll did not specifically include Hispanics.)
As the United States' minority population surges toward a projected 50 percent in 2050 - a focus of attention at President Clinton's race forum today - some experts say the teen dating trend foreshadows a new era of racial and ethnic tolerance.
Already, polls suggest that teenagers consider race less important, both as an individual barrier and a social problem, than adults do. Meanwhile, interracial marriage is on the rise, with the number of couples quadrupling since the 1970s. Today, nearly two-thirds of whites say they approve of inter-racial marriage.
Other observers, however, are less sanguine. Teenage idealism does not always translate into adult behavior, they caution. Moreover, they point to a sharp upswing in the 1990s of reported hate crimes and continued racially motivated violence, including widely publicized cases of black men being killed or beaten for associating with white women.
"The polls may say one thing, and yet there is other evidence of incredible violence among young generations," says Martha Hodes, a historian at New York University who wrote "White Women, Black Men," an account of illicit liaisons in the 19th-century South.
As for the teens themselves, views of the future remain mixed and, not surprisingly, a little fuzzy. Many, however, are adamant that interracial dating is no different than any other kind - and is here to stay.
"For us, [dating] has nothing to do with color," says Cathleen Woods, an Anglo high school junior whose boyfriend, David Negron, is Hispanic. "You almost never think about it," she says, as the couple leaves the gym arm-in-arm after track practice at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, Va.
The northern Virginia county - and Stuart High in particular - reflects the rich melting pot that US schools and communities are becoming as a result of an influx of mainly Asian and Hispanic immigrants. Nationwide, minority enrollment at public schools has topped one-third. At Stuart, the figure is double that, with 24 percent of the student body Asian, 32 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent African-American.
"If you go to my school, you can't be racist, really," says Heather. "There are so many races here - you couldn't get through the day."
Indeed, in hallways filled with ethnic costumes and dotted with signs in Vietnamese, Korean, and Arabic (to name a few), students say they pair up for the same reasons young people do anywhere: shared interests, values, and attraction.
"If they like the personality and attitude, they just go out. It's cool," says senior Kamran Ali, a Pakistani who says he has dated whites and Hispanics.
Christina Rosen, a junior who is half Hispanic, agrees. "I just see the person inside," says Christina, whose boyfriend is Cambodian. "The only type of racism we have in our school is joking about it."
The atmosphere of tolerance is great enough, for example, for students to playfully taunt white football players as "CCF" - for "Crazy Caucasian Farmers." Heather calls one of her Asian friends "rice eyes," while another student mockingly refers to himself as a "white, male species."
PARENTS, for the most part, go along with the mixed dating here in Falls Church, Va., as well as across the country. Nearly two-thirds of parents of teens nationwide say they have no problem with cross-racial and ethnic dating, according to a Gallup poll. A recent survey of white adults showed that most would not object to sending their children to a predominantly minority school.
"Most parents are very positive," says Barbara Douds, director of guidance for Stuart's 1,300 students, citing the advantages of an early dose of diversity. "Our kids will be extraordinarily well prepared to handle the world at large."
Harriet Riehl, the PTA co-president, agrees. "The people skills my children have learned at that school are invaluable, they have an advantage beyond belief."
Yet despite growing acceptance among teens and parents, a significant minority resists interracial dating.
Opposition is more common in predominantly white rural areas than in cities and suburbs, where racial and ethnic mixing is greater. It is also directed most pointedly at black-white dating. In a 1994 incident in small-town Alabama, for example, a school principal threatened to cancel the prom if black-white couples attended.
Even at Stuart High, racially motivated teasing, insults, and fights - though rare - do happen. "One time I was dating a white girl," Kamran recalls, "and her friend [a white male] told her 'Why don't you go with your own race?' "
Heather says she feels snubbed at times by black girls at school. "They don't like a white girl taking their man, or something."
Some parents, often citing religious and cultural reasons, strongly encourage their children to date their own kind.
Heather's mother, for example, openly disapproves of her daughter's romance. "You fall in love with them, and it presents problems, particularly with that race [blacks]," she says, declining to give her name. "If you get married, the children don't fit in any race."
"A lot of kids are saying the parents are racist, and I say, well, I probably am to an extent - but everybody is," she says.
On the future of race relations in America, teens hold mixed views. Heather, perhaps understandably, feels uncertain.
"I hope things get better," she says. "At least younger people are more open-minded than their parents."