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Multiracial Identity and the U.S. Census
(Released January 2010)

podcast link 
  by Tyrone Nagai  


Key Citations




Multiracial Identity and the 2000, 2010, and 2100 U.S. Census


It is next to impossible to accurately count the number of multiracial individuals using data collected for the 1990 U.S. Census because of the questions asked (and not asked), but it is estimated that a half million people identified as multiracial (Williams, 2005). Former Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt overheard that people who marked two or more racial categories on the 1990 U.S. Census were assigned to a single race based on which box had the darkest pen mark (Williams, 2005). For people who used the "other" category to write in "black-white" or "white-black" as their race, the census counted the former as "black" and the latter as "white" since the second race listed was ignored (Lee, 1993).

For the 2000 U.S. Census these inconsistencies were eliminated. Two or more racial identities were reported by 6.8 million Americans (or 2.4% of the country's population). Jones and Smith (2001) wrote a comprehensive report on the multiracial population. Highlights include maps and data tables showing the cities and states with the most multiracial people. For example, the most multiracial city is Honolulu, Hawaii, with nearly 15% of its population claiming two or more races. Additional highlights include analyses of the prevalence of multiraciality within and among racial groups, with "American Indians and Alaska Natives" and "Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders" reporting the greatest incidence of multiracial identity.

map of multiracial U.S.

Jones and Smith (2001) found that 93% of the people who reported being multiracial in the U.S. Census are actually biracial, meaning their heritage was composed of two races. The three most common multiracial identites are Asian-white, black-white, and Hispanic-white (Brunsma, 2005; Holloway et al, 2009). Additional research on data from the 2000 U.S. Census by Farley (2002) found 63 different combinations of race. When Hispanic ethnicity was disambiguated, the number reached 126 different ethnic and racial identities (Farley, 2002). While the diversity of multiethnic and multiracial identities might be impressive for demographers tracking the country's changing racial profile, the data actually have a great deal of practical application to policy making in education, health services, employment, and housing (Graham, 1996). At the same time, former OMB researcher Roderick Harrison is critical of the changes to include multiracial identities because they make it more difficult to address inequalities based on race or ethnicity (2002). Geographic variability and the subjective nature of racial self-identification pose problems. Further, the data do not always refer to "meaningful" multiracial populations, and their validity and reliability are doubtful for evaluating social, economic, health, or housing characteristics of different population groups (Harrison, 2002).

Shortly before the 2000 U.S. Census was conducted, the OMB implemented a new guideline (OMB Bulletin No. 00-02) that automatically counted multiracial respondents who marked both white and a nonwhite category as belonging to the nonwhite group. Goldstein and Morning believe that this new guideline is effectively a return to the old "one-drop rule" that was prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries (2002). These OMB guidelines, they argue, violate the principle of self-identification, err on the side of extending race-based public policies to individuals who might previously not have qualified, and affect civil rights and voting laws based on single-race criteria (Goldstein and Morning, 2002).

The new racial classification system instituted by OMB Bulletin No. 00-02 also might endanger civil rights and voting rights (Harrison, 2002). It was found that counting mixed white-nonwhite people as members of the minority group raises the aggregate socioeconomic status of African Americans and Native Americans but lowers it slightly for Asian Americans. This has potential implications for civil rights cases involving employment discrimination since race is usually weighed in conjunction with other factors such as education and social class (Harrison, 2002).

Furthermore, counting mixed white-nonwhite people as members of minority groups can dramatically alter the count. For example, in 2000 10.2 million people checked only "Asian" on the census, and an additional 1.7 million people checked both "Asian" and "white." Including the mixed Asian-white group increases the number of Asians by 15%. Likewise, the number of people counted as "American Indian or Alaska Native" on the census fluctuates by 65% depending on whether multiracial people are added to the total (Harrison, 2002).

While researchers like Harrison and Goldstein and Morning offer critical responses to the inclusion of multiracial identities in the census, Roth (2005) uses data from the 1990 and 2000 Public Use Microdata Samples to investigate how intermarried black and white parents chose to identify their biracial children. She found that the majority of parents rejected the "one-drop rule." Daniel (1996) also explores the ways in which intermarried black and white parents described and constructed the racial identity(ies) of their children. His research reveals that the "one-drop rule" still exerts some influence, but it is being challenged by individuals who strive to form equally strong ties between their family's African American and European American backgrounds. In addition, the families in Daniel's study affirm an integrative identity that has both the black and white communities as reference groups but also a pluralistic identity that blends aspects of the black and white communities but is not the same as either.

Bratter and Heard (2009) study the racial classification of adolescents taking into account both the race and gender of the parents. They found that the identity of multiracial adolescents' tends to match the father's identity in black-white families, especially if the father is white. In contrast, the identity of multiracial adolescents in Asian-white families tends to match the identity of the mother regardless of her race. While the father's involvement, particularly educational involvement, is more likely than the mother's to influence racial classification, adjusting for involvement does not explain these gender patterns. In fact, the study shows that well-known gender influences on parenting have little to do with the complex ways parent-child relationships impact racial classification.

Brunsma (2005) examines the ways in which Asian-white, black-white, and Hispanic-white multiracial children are identified by their parents, and he observes a general movement away from identification as a racial minority and toward identification as "multiracial" and "white." The trend is predicated upon other social factors, such as parents' gender and socioeconomic status.

Holloway et al (2009) also analyze the identities assigned to Asian-white, black-white, and Hispanic-white multiracial children by their parents, but they focus on spatial factors, such as household, neighborhood, and metropolitan areas. It turns out that a neighborhood's proportion of white residents increases the probability that parents report their children as white. Likewise, a neighborhood's racial diversity increases the probability that black-white parents claim a non-white race (black or "other") for their children. In short, this may signal that the identities of multiracial children are party influenced by their parents' efforts to help them "fit in" the existing racial structure of their neighborhoods.

What all of these studies suggest is the complicated nature of labeling and creating multiracial identities, especially for parents and children. Dalmage (2000) finds that multiracial families cause people with a single racial identity to question the homogeneity of their heritage. In short, race is a shifting, unstable form of identity.

Go To Final Thoughts: The Future of Multiracial Identity in the U.S.

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