BARBOURSVILLE, VA. — Racial and ethnic watchdogs tightened patrol of their perimeters as the Census Bureau released new numbers that add up to an acceleration of the browning of America.
With blacks reproducing nearly three times as fast as whites, there was already increasing concern that whites will be a minority in the US by mid-century. But the Hispanic population is expanding even faster: Their numbers increased by 57.9 percent during the 1990s, while blacks grew by 15.6 percent, and whites by only 5.9 percent.
And if more Hispanics choose to call themselves white in the next census - as many already do, despite many having Indian and African roots - they could tip the balance of cultural power back toward European-Americans.
An ill-defined and undercounted "phantom" folk of mixed-race origins may end up causing the most confusion, however, as we Americans seek to label and sum ourselves up.
Born to parents of differing races, they want to be all they can be - or at least not be reduced to any single one of their parts. Presumably that's why the census now offers 63 possible combinations of racial and ethnic identity.
Granted, it matters what we call ourselves. But for African-Americans like me, it's not as much a question of specificity as it is one of history. After all, like many black Americans, I am tri-racial - having African, European, and Indians in my background. The chief difference between my ancestry and that of the newly "multiracial" crowd - whatever the combination of their races - seems to lie in the chronologies of our amalgamation. There have been no white people in my line since slavery, when my blood was mixed under duress.
By insisting on a new name and identity for the same blend of blood that has pumped through my people's veins for generations, are the modern multiracialists trying to distance themselves from the stigma of slavery? And relatedly, is this also about volition? Are the new breed attempting to contrast the circumstances of their procreation? To make clear they are not the product of rape, as was so often the case during slavery? Is this really about contractual arrangements between parents, as opposed to the racial components of children? Because both the unreconstructed African-American and the new nameless "phantom" are multiracial.
If inventing a new category of identification is their way of avoiding our country's badly bungled past, I have to wonder where, in their minds, that leaves the rest of us - we who remain black, who emphasize our African origins in our appellation, and who acknowledge the enslavement of our ancestors as the source of America's deep-seated patterns of discrimination.
Slavery - the building block of early America, the paradox of our democracy, the shame of our heritage - is what ties us together, for good and for bad, to each other and to the newly multiracial kid on the block.
Such "multiracial" children - who are often the fruit of idealistic unions - should know that when America turns its eye on them, it sees them as black, just as it sees me. There is no way to visually distinguish between the two of us - either in the nation's sight or in our own mirrors. Such is the crudity of our racial codes and the legacy of our race-based system of chattel slavery.
Rather than try to split the differences between us, why not unite and attack racism together? Rather than separate the modern multiracial from historically colored people like me, parents would better serve their children's futures by battling discrimination across the board.
For the ugly truth is that a parent can try to shelter a child from racism with all kinds of artificial categories constructed at the hearth. But when that child leaves the house, reality will still be out there. Instead of fashioning a new identity for some, why not work toward a better world for all?
Mary Ann French coordinated the recent Slave Commemoration at James Madison's Montpelier plantation in Orange County, Va. She is a veteran of journalism and a student of history.