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America's Blurring Racial Distinctions

America's Blurring Racial DistinctionsTo address shifting demographics, experts are redefining the nation’s traditionally rigid racial classifications, says Tufts’ James Jennings. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.14.03] Like many cities across the country, Boston is experiencing a demographic shift that is transforming the way both experts and the general public define race. Waves of immigration coupled with increases in interracial marriages, says Tufts' James Jennings, are blurring the nation's traditionally rigid racial classifications.

"Racial breakdowns serve critical functions in modern America, from redrawing congressional districts to distributing federal funds and enforcing civil rights laws. All are considered important in ending discrimination and achieving equal opportunity," reported The Washington Post. "But outside the realm of policies and color politics, race is real but without neat boundaries, resisting easy description or classification."

James Jennings - a professor of urban and environmental policy at Tufts - knows this first hand.

"Born to a Latino mother and an African American father in New York City more than 50 years ago, Jennings is identified on his birth certificate as ‘white,' as are his parents," reported The Los Angeles Times. The Tufts professor, who identifies himself as both black and Latino, has made the birth certificate part of his classes.

"I keep it as a great teaching tool to show that official numbers, hard data, are sometimes quite inaccurate," he told the Times.

Analysis of recent census data supports Jennings' point.

Many immigrants - a growing population throughout the country - don't identify with American racial classifications and often decline to identify themselves as a specific race.

"Nearly 25 percent of the growth of the black population between 1990 and 2000 was because of newcomers from Africa and the Caribbean, according to a [recent] report," reported USA Today. "Their populations are growing at a faster rate than that of traditional African-Americans."

According to Jennings, this demographic shift is changing the way experts classify the country's black population.

"The term African-American, as popular as it has become, is actually a demographic misnomer," Jennings told the newspaper. "In the black community, you have a lot of people who describe themselves and see themselves as black but don't necessarily see themselves as African-American."

Latino populations are experiencing similar shifts.

"In some Latin American countries, you talk to people at a grass-roots level, as people don't see themselves as white or black," the Tufts professor told the Post. "They're not living in a world that's so crystal-clear black-white."

Analysis of the 2000 census, reported the LA Times, indicates that 15 million Latinos - 42 percent of the total population - did not identify themselves as any race, choosing the relatively new option "some other race" instead.

Others, like Jennings, identify with several.

"I just felt I didn't have to respond to the separations people make," Jennings told the Times. "I choose black, and I always add Latino. Sorry, but I'm not going to deny either my mother or my father."

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