Never still, the American face develops rapidly through time: First as a series of snapshots, captured in black and white and then blossoming—on Kodachrome—into a color mosaic representing all peoples of the world.
This month, National Geographic magazine celebrates its 125th anniversary issue with a photo essay highlighting the phenotypic evolution of America, as racial identity changes with mass immigration from the Southern Hemisphere and a greater intermingling among diverse families. Today, more than 7 million Americans self-identify as multiracial.
Home to world-class photojournalism, this issue of the magazine features the work of renowned photo-artist Martin Schoeller whose images display a striking—sometimes shocking—combination of facial features. The photographs challenge traditional perceptions of human beauty, daring the observer to ask that particularly American question, “Where you from?”
Although humans may naturally discriminate against one another socially, some believe that institutional racism first arose with the settlement and development of America. According to the late historian George M. Frederickson, a Stanford University professor known for his study of racism and white supremacy, slave traders and owners often justified their anthropic misdeeds—their usury of fellow man—by stigmatizing the African as the descendent of Cain, murdered by Abel and cursed by God himself.
And to a large extent, the land remains segregated to this day, if not by grand design, in a de facto sense by the social and economic interactions of everyday people, every day. Many American cities are hypersegregated, made up or African American urban centers surrounded by concentric circles of whites in the suburbs and exurbs.
Yet, millions of Americans can attest to a quickening evolution of race throughout the country. By 2,000, the U.S. Census Bureau began to recognize this new multiplicity of race by offering more options on its racial identity questionnaire. They recognized that former categories no longer fit and perhaps never did, and that white Americans would no longer represent a majority by mid-century. Instead, they would join a newer, redefined, majority.
As the nation’s population tripled last century, the collection of white Americans, defined by the Census Bureau as descendants of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, and North Arica grew in number but fell in proportion. White America is comprised of a motley crew of ethnicities including Irish, Anglo-Saxon, German, Italian, Polish and—according to the Census Bureau—Lebanese, Arab, Persian, and so on. Those groups comprised 72.4 percent of the American population in 2010, including 63.7 percent who self-identified as “white but not Hispanic.”
Those demographics represent rapid change during the past century; in 1910 the U.S. population was 88 percent white. Geographically, too, Americans were separated by greater distances, with most African Americans—numbering only 8.8 million compared to 66.8 million whites—still living in the Southern states before the Great Migration north to industrialized states.
A major turning point in the demographic makeup of the U.S. arose with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a legacy of the late U.S. senator, Ted Kennedy and his cohorts. Under that law, immigration quadrupled from 9.6 million first-generation Americans in 1970 to some 38 million by 2007. In recent months, more than a third of such immigrants hailed from Asia, 42 percent from the Americas, and just over one in 10 from Africa. Today, racial minorities account for a slight majority—50.4 percent—of all children born in the United States, for the first time in a long time.
But much has been said about the numbers, perhaps too much. With this new photography, Schoeller attempts to kill the old phrenology, one shot at a time.