San Francisco Chronicle
by: Brenda Payton

I looked at the room full of San Francisco State University students and saw the beginning of the end of race as we have defined it.

If that sounds a little over-the-top, here’s some background. Last semester, I taught a class in the journalism department at S.F. State. It was entitled “The Social Impact of Journalism,” and between the Arab Spring, the BART protests and the Occupy movement, we had more than enough to talk about. (Even if it was like pulling teeth to get most of them to talk. That’s another story.)

The class was huge, 120 students, and hugely diverse. The first day, I took roll and managed to butcher most of their names. The Spanish names I handled OK. The Russian, Filipino and Chinese names were more of a challenge. They corrected my mispronunciations good-naturedly.

After a few meetings, I realized it wasn’t only the class that was racially diverse – a number of the students were also. They appeared to be, in traditional terms, racially mixed – the face of a future when race will be diminished as a distinguishing characteristic.

And they seemed comfortable with each other. The white students seemed unfazed by being in the minority. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure they were in the minority. The old definitions – black/Asian/white/Latino, majority/minority – are blurred.

Two interesting studies were published during the semester, one heralding the evolution of racial attitudes, and one underscoring the urgency of taking on racial disparities throughout our society.

A national survey by the Pew Research Center found that millennials (18- to 30-year-olds, the vast majority of the S.F. State students) truly embrace racial diversity, including interracial marriage, in much greater numbers than earlier generations.

I shared the findings with my class, and a young student, who appeared to be a light-skinned black woman and who has a Filipino surname, looked at me as if I had just announced that the sun rises in the morning. “We’re used to it, I guess,” she said.

I suspect the term “interracial dating” has practically no meaning for them. Indeed, if any of them read, or, more likely, hear about this article, they’ll probably think, “Why is she tripping?”

People have been debating whether our country entered a post-racial phase after we elected President Obama. A number of ironies suggest we aren’t there yet. For one, we identify him as our first African American president when he is biracial, as white as he is black. Second level of irony: With an African father and American mother, he is more accurately African American than those of us born to two African American parents. OK, that’s confusing.

To add to the confusion: Most African Americans are mixed-race, descendants of whites who held Africans as slaves and overseers during bondage and many descendants of American Indians. When I was growing up, even kids who were biracial were considered black, make that Negro. I have first cousins whose mother is Chinese, and I never thought of them as anything other than Negro. For even more confusion, our other cousins are so light, at one time I thought they were white but didn’t think that meant we couldn’t be first cousins. We didn’t think of ourselves as a mixed-race family. We were proud Negroes.

The country has always been more racially mixed than we’ve pretended. That includes white people who have discovered (or not) black ancestors. “Black” people who were light enough passed for white to escape segregation and had children who knew nothing of their racial background. Asian and Latino communities also have been racially mixed.

Looking at my journalism class, I saw what terrified segregationists. They knew that if people were allowed to go to school and work together, to live in the same neighborhoods, they would start to mix it up. Theirs was an unsustainable worldview in a racially diverse society.

The other interesting study published last semester wasn’t as reassuring. In “Post-Racial? Americans and Race in the Age of Obama,” the Greenlining Institute found that white and black people have very different perceptions about racial disparity. The differences were most revealing in the areas of health and income. Sixty-two percent of white people, compared with 43.8 percent of black people, thought black and white people have the same level of health. However, study after study finds racial disparities in almost every area of health. For example, life expectancy is 4.8 years higher for whites than blacks, and black children are twice as likely as white children to have asthma.

Regarding income, 67 percent of black people said blacks make less money, and 59 percent of white people believe whites and blacks make the same. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, between 2009 and 2011, black median weekly earnings were $500 less than for whites.

Indeed, a year ago I did a report for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education on structural racism and found 150 current studies documenting racial disparities in health, education, criminal justice, housing and employment. (See Though I have often written about similar studies, I was shocked by the breadth of the inequities. If our society refuses to acknowledge ongoing, documented racial disparities, we can’t commit to policies that will erase them. The disparities won’t magically disappear with the melding of individual racial identities. It is encouraging to see more enlightened attitudes about race, but to achieve the bright future represented by the beautifully diverse faces of my class, we must address racial disparity. Otherwise we remain chained to the past.


Millennials (18- to 30-year-olds) who say the increase

in interracial marriage is a change for the better.


Members of Generation X

(31-46) who agree.


Boomers (47-65) who agree.


Members of the so-called silent generation

(66-83) who agree.

Source: Pew Research Center