About That Nation of 'Mutts': A Response to David Brooks

06/30/2013 07:25 pm ET | Updated Aug 30, 2013

David Brooks is on my mind. In his latest New York Times opinion piece, "A Nation of Mutts," Brooks argues that with or without the new immigration bill, America is headed towards a demographic reality where no one group dominates by numbers alone. Brooks posits the following:

Soon, we will no longer be an outpost of Europe, but a nation of mutts, a nation with hundreds of fluid ethnicities from around the world, intermarrying and intermingling.

There is so much to unpack and question in this op-ed. For a moment, I am going to leave aside how much the term "mutt" hurts the ear, in this country where race and designations of race have never been neutral language, and usually have led to legal classifications that determined one's life opportunities. "Mutt" can be especially painful when it is flung at your child, or at anyone that you love, including yourself -- though those who can claim "mutt" status have often had to deal with so much disdain throughout their lives, that one man's op-ed, even if he teaches at Yale and writes for the American paper of record, may not be the battle they care to fight.

Instead, I want to begin with America as the "outpost of Europe." The image he conjures is one of a major fort where Europeans have been living together and alone behind stone walls, never engaging with the original inhabitants of the land or the people they forced here in bondage to make the earth yield its wealth. How inadequate a shorthand of American political, economic, and cultural history could Brooks have offered? Implicit in this notion is the idea that everything great about this country was shipped, stone by stone, from England, France, and Germany, and painstakingly reassembled here, with no changes, no remixes, no influences from other ideas or demands. Yet people of color have always been co-creators here in this nation. Slave labor enriched the South. Educated people of color have long been leaders in business, scholarship, politics and the arts. Our sciences are filled with immigrants who create innovation and that most holy of holies: shareholder value.

But let's focus on black America. For centuries blacks and whites have mirrored and resisted and stole from and bested one another in this republic built on Ancient Greek ideals. Our lawyers, activists and everyday heroes have pushed our power elites to make good on the promises of our founding documents. We still fight for due process and for equal representation, for reasonable interpretations of our bill of rights. But in the meantime, we lead (see Barack Obama, American President or Kenneth C. Frazier, Merck & CO, CEO) or make "top-earning" lists (see Beyonce, singer). Black hands built Monticello. Black fingers crafted the melodies of great American music. Black tongues mothered the sounds that we know of as Southern English. Black people continue to raise white children. Who is more intimate or influential than a mother figure? We are not invisible intruders and interlopers. We built this place, too.

The fact is, "intermarrying and intermingling" is not new. Not by a long shot. We have lived together on plantations, in small towns, and in cities. Before emancipation, those who enslaved other human beings exercised absolute physical and sexual control under the law. For centuries, all over the colonies, rape was a way of life. Look at us black people: our beautiful shades of black, brown and gold were handed down to us by survivors of unspeakable cruelty and assaults to the spirit and body. For those of us with lighter hues, that coloring from somewhere, and it wasn't Africa.

But there is also a history of consent. Blacks, whites, Native Americans, and Indians intermixed by free will. In Louisiana, there is a long and complicated history filled with race codes, quadroon balls and placage arrangements. Tulane University historian Emily Clark writes in The Strange History of the American Quadroon that in late-18th century New Orleans, due to demographics where white men outnumbered white women, and women of color outnumbered men of color: "Partnership with a free woman of color was the obvious option for white men who desired a settled conjugal life but could not or did not wish to contract a marriage with a woman of unmixed European descent." One can argue that economic necessity should be the first factor considered when discussing women's motivations to marry these white men, but as Clark's research shows, there are cases where affection seemed present between the races. This is the case be it 1813 or 2013.

I should know: I am the daughter of a German mother and a black father. My parents married. They loved each other as best they could. My mother later married my step-father, a Filipino immigrant. My sister and I are proud members of mixed-race America. We are the "hybrid individuals" that Brooks writes about as if we were lab specimens, great genetic and socio-political experiments where anything can happen!

I can only imagine the exasperated editor asking Brooks, for the Love of God do not use a pejorative term like "mutt" to describe not only the children playing on Harlem or Houston playgrounds, but the racial identities of Americans who can trace their roots back to their arrival ships -- and these are just the white people I'm talking about now, for so many American "whites" list ethnic extractions using multiple fingers on their hands. Growing up in segregated, but multi-ethnic suburban Detroit, ask any of my classmates what they "are" and you're bound to hear "I'm this and this" or "I'm this and this and this." Bonus points for getting Native American in there somewhere.

I have to think this is how an editor would respond to a writer in the paper of record labeling large swaths of people "mongrels" and "fools" -- which, if you look up the actual definition of "mutt" is what you'll find. Anyone who takes language seriously knows that a mutt, by definition is not as prized as a purebred, that it represents a certain befouling, even if those of us who take genetics seriously know that the mixing of bloodlines often creates stronger, healthier offspring. Now, who exactly are these exalted pure people who have been running the show and must be prepared for the new normal? Who among us is only descended from people who came from the same village, from ancestors who never ever left the village? Ironically, the people most likely to raise their hands will be among the immigrants, though maybe that's not true at all, for even in remote areas people migrate, people get pushed off their land by war and famine, and whenever people of different backgrounds have the chance to see and know one another, love or lust can flourish, no matter the continent.

I think Brooks wrote this piece in good faith, in an attempt to reassure anxious people who an intensified influx of immigrants doesn't have to mean drastic change for America. Unfortunately, using a word like "mutt" hardens the hearts of many readers before a writer can get his message across. If I could be so bold as to offer Brooks advice, it would be this: 1) forget about "mutts," it's not a neutral term; and 2) next time, if you're trying to reassure, just use New York City as an example. This place is as diverse as you can ask for, with a constant influx of new immigrants. But look at the power centers. When was the last time you entered a hedge fund office, a home of high art, or an exclusive private club, and saw a group of people who looked like the people you just left on the streets, especially those in Harlem or the outer boroughs? Never? That's what I thought. It takes more that numbers to wrest one's share of that kind of power.

But we're not giving up. My three-year old son Anthony can trace his roots back to a free woman of color in New Orleans, her French partner, and Louisiana Attakapas on one side, and German immigrants and blacks from North Carolina whose roots go much deeper and longer than this century on the other. I suppose in Brooks's eyes, my son is a "mutt." The beautiful reality is that he is as American as American can be. Our roots go deep. And we're not going anywhere. We will continue to do what all of our ancestors have done: contribute to the economic and cultural life of this great country. This may be a new reality for many in America. But for us it's a way of life. We're here, and we're not going anywhere, whether you choose to see us or not.