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Jewish World Review July 3, 2003/ 3 Tamuz, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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When red, white and blue is brown, black and white | Americans have thrived in the melting pot. We haven't been a purebred strain since Captain John Smith married Pocahontas. Intermarriage and immigration make us a lumpy and colorful stew.

We frequently ask each other about our origins. In the bad old days of segregation, origins abetted racism. Identification with the "old country" was a tool for discrimination, too. Today, curiosity about roots is rarely sought to elicit prejudice, but used (and now validated by the Supreme Court) to confer victimhood. That's too bad. Most Americans are a tolerant lot. We take pride in our mixed heritage.

We celebrate all of us on the Fourth of July. While our original independence meant the English here separated from the English over there, a lot of the ocean blue has passed under lots of ships since then.

My bloodlines, like most of the people I know, are decidedly mixed. My father was born in Russia, my mother in Canada. Four grandparents came from Russia, Poland and Lithuania. My three children were born in Washington. Our two grandsons have a Chilean father who was raised a Catholic by a mother whose roots go back to Spain before the Jews were evicted in 1492. His father was French and English.

The boys can probably appeal to "diversity" on the basis of their "Hispanic" father when they are old enough to apply to college. That's an irony Sandra Day O'Connor could appreciate.

My grandparents, who rarely talked about the "old country," because the memories were too painful, had suffered through pogroms and ghettos, anti-Semitic laws and state-supported prejudice. They were poor and unlettered but they never felt like victims here. My father said, "Pop wasn't the smartest man in the world, but he was smart enough not to miss the boat to America."

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When I was growing up, I went to segregated schools, ate in segregated restaurants and watched movies in segregated theaters. After a summer at camp, where I spent all day in the sun, my skin turned a dark tan and my friends joked that I wouldn't be admitted to the Sheridan movie theater on Georgia Avenue.

I met the first black person who wasn't a handyman or a maid when I went off to the University of Wisconsin. My grandsons attend a charter school where the children of different colors never notice the color of skin. (But they do notice that the boys have red hair.)

My story is neither typical nor unusual, but American to the core. As we celebrate the 227th anniversary of our independence, it testifies to what's wonderful about America - our ability to rectify what was awful (slavery and segregation), absorbing immigrants who endured prejudice in other lands, while working to make America better.

Tiger Woods, the championship golfer, Erika Harold, the reigning Miss America, boast of the mix of minorities in their heritage. Tiger once described himself as "Cablinasian," a blend of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian.

Miss America's mother traces her ancestry to black slaves and her great-great grandparents were Choctaw and Cherokee. Her father tells of traces of Greek, German, Welsh and English forbears. She jokes that her background is so mixed that she checked the box for "other" on her college applications.

But increasing numbers of college students refuse to reveal any information about racial and ethnic backgrounds on their application forms. Almost 10 percent of the applicants at the University of California at Berkeley last year left the space blank, up from 6 percent a decade ago. Nearly 18 percent of those who took SAT exams last year also left the space blank, up from 10 percent in 1997. Caucasians and Asians are especially suspicious that their ethnicity will be held against them.

Ward Connerly, the black California businessman who works to dismantle affirmative action quota programs, wants states and local governments to ban the collection of all data relating to race and ethnicity for schools, jobs and government contracts. He's sponsoring the "Racial Privacy Initiative" in California. If approved, such initiatives could spread to other states and hinder affirmative action. (It could also deprive us of valuable information about ourselves.)

Americans have worked hard, if imperfectly, to treat all men and women as equal. The wrongs of the past occurred when we did not live up to our democratic ideals. It's sad that the Supreme Court has given its imprimatur to an undemocratic process falsely labeled "diversity." In the words of black writer Shelby Steele: "We use the old sin to correct its own damage." That's not what the Fourth of July should celebrate.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS