March 3, 2010 | USA TODAY | Original Article

Multiracial no longer boxed in by the Census

Jennifer Harvey was raised by her white mother and white stepfather in what she calls "a Caucasian world." Harvey never met her father but she knew he was black and Cuban. That made her Hispanic, white and black.

"Blacks think I'm black," she says. "Hispanics think I'm Hispanic. Honestly, I don't identify with either bucket wholeheartedly — Caucasian, black or Hispanic."

After high school, living on her own in Alabama, she applied for a new driver's license. The state, on its own, identified her as black. "I felt I had been branded something I wasn't," says Harvey, 40, an administrative assistant for a Houston energy company.

This month, the Census Bureau will remind Americans that racial classifications remain an integral part of the country's social and legal fabric while, at the same time, recognizing that racial lines are blurring for a growing number of people such as Harvey. The government will give the nation's more than 308 million people the opportunity to define their racial makeup as one race or more.

The agency expects the number of people who choose multiple races to be significantly higher than the 2000 Census, when the government first allowed more than one race choice. Responses to this year's survey will provide for the first time a glimpse at the evolution of racial identification: Those who were children in 2000 and were identified as one race by their parents may respond differently as adults today and select more than one.

"It's a historic opportunity to see how things have changed or how things have not changed," says Nicholas Jones, chief of the Census Bureau racial statistics branch. Multiracial Americans are "one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the country. There's an increasing number of children born to parents of different races."


When Barack Obama was elected the nation's first black president in 2008, some academics and political analysts suggested the watershed event could represent the dawning of a post-racial era in a land that has struggled over race relations for four centuries.

At the same time, growing ethnic and racial diversity fueled by record immigration and rates of interracial marriages have made the USA's demographics far more complex. By 2050, there will be no racial or ethnic majority as the share of non-Hispanic whites slips below 50%, according to Census projections.

"It's showing that tomorrow's children and their children will in fact be multiracial, leading to a potential post-racial society," says William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution.

"The issue isn't just multirace," says Census historian Margo Anderson, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "It's the blurring of the very traditional black vs. white. Categories that held until about 1980 are shifting in large numbers. … The clarity is breaking down."

Census forms on the way

2010 Census forms will arrive in more than 135 million households by the middle of March. Two of the 10 questions on the form will prompt soul-searching for some multiracial people such as Harvey and routine responses from millions of other Americans.

Question No. 8 asks if anyone in the household is Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish origin. That's a question about ethnicity.

Question No. 9 asks the race of every person in the household — regardless of whether they're Hispanic. The instructions specify "Mark one or more boxes." Choices include white, black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.

It also has one more box: "Some other race." That's the catch-all category that many Hispanics and people who don't see themselves as fitting in existing race categories pick. In the past, it also has lured wags who write in their race as "human," "Vulcan" or "Texan."

Why does the government ask about race and ethnicity?

Federal agencies need the information to monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws such as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, fair employment practices and affirmative action mandates.

Only 2.3% of the population — about 7 million — identify themselves as being of more than one race, according to recent Census surveys. That figure has remained constant since 2000. But mixed-race marriages have jumped 20% since 2000 to 4.5 million, or 8% of the total.

The number reporting more than one race may seem small, Frey says, because for generations, there had not been wide social acceptance of mixed-race individuals.

"A lot of people who were part American Indian never said they were part American Indian until it became more popular to do that," Frey says. "It's not in their consciousness as much as it might be in the future."

Jones agrees. "If the trends continue — rising number of interracial relationships and marriages, rising number of births (in) those relationships and increasing awareness of racial identity — we may see an increase" in people listing themselves as multiracial, he says.

For Harvey, the gap between genetic reality and life experiences sent her in search of her "blackness" and on a lifelong struggle with racial identity. Her quest caused a break with her family that has since been patched. She has three daughters now. Their fathers are black.

Harvey likes the chance in this year's Census to identify all the races in her heritage but still is not sure what she'll report for her daughters.

"The youngest (4 years old) wants to be identified as black," she says. "I'm still grappling with that. If I can get Hispanic and black for them, that's the ideal."

A biracial president

Obama, born to a black father and a white mother, is not only the first black president but the first biracial president.

During his successful campaign in 2008, Obama referred to himself as black but also referred to his roots in Hawaii, where he was raised by his white mother. When the Obamas' Census form arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., will he identify himself as black or as black and white? The White House declines to say.

The Census may never truly reflect the actual number of people in the USA who are of more than one race. That's because responses are based on how people view themselves, how they think they are perceived or how they choose to be represented in the national count.

"The issue of perception is central," says Ann Morning, a sociology professor at New York University. In an article titled "Who is Multiracial?" she estimated that about one-third of the U.S. population has some mixed-racial ancestry going back several generations. She predicts young generations will be more embracing of their multiracial heritage.

Morning is African American. But she also has English, Chinese and American Indian ancestry. Since 2000, she has checked off black, white, Asian and American Indian.

"The bigger thing is how I will mark my daughters," Morning says. Their dad is Italian and she believes most people will look at her daughters as white. For now, she'll check all the boxes for them, too.

"There is a segment of the community that is very proud of having multiple ethnicities or backgrounds," Jones says.

High school senior Cecilio Palacio Jr., 18, has a black mother and a black Panamanian father. When he was filling out job applications last summer, he was stymied by the race questions.

"My dad said: 'Why don't you just say other?' " Palacio says. "I continue to fill out my race no matter what. I don't want to hide myself from people. I want to be upfront. This is what I am. This is who I am."

Most people view him as black, but he says that he speaks Spanish and doesn't consider himself more black than Hispanic. He will check "Hispanic" on the ethnicity question and "black" on the race question.

Mixed marriages on the rise

Racial identity is increasingly muddled as the number of mixed-race unions grows:

• About three of 10 marriages involving Hispanics or Asians are now mixed-race, and almost one of six involving blacks are mixed race, according to an analysis by demographer Frey.

• About 9% of marriages involving non-Hispanic whites are mixed.

• A 10th or more of all marriages in 13 states — most in the West — were mixed race in 2008.

• Thirty-six states had at least a 20% increase in mixed-race marriages since 2000, including Florida, Virginia and Texas. A fifth of marriages in California and New Mexico were mixed.

"For some, the multirace response option represented an opportunity to acknowledge both parents," says Roderick Harrison, a demographer at Howard University and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "But for a lot of others, it's like, 'OK, are you going to turn your back on the rest of us?' … A lot of the racial and ethnic politics of the Census are that we want the biggest numbers possible for our groups."

The Census has a long-lasting effect on politics and money. Population counts every 10 years decide the number of seats every state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and determine how more than $400 billion a year in federal aid is allocated.

"I know it's valuable information if you're doing economic development or dispense certain amount of money to areas that need it," says Stewart Cockburn, 39, who lost his job in textile sales in September. "My point about race in general in this country is that we're just never going to get past it if we keep asking about it."

Cockburn, of Greensboro, N.C., says he's Scottish and Irish and has a great-grandmother who was Cherokee.

"I don't understand why everyone makes such a big deal about race," he says. "Maybe one day we will no longer care about race, ethnicity or the color of another person's skin."

Donna Edwards, of Santa Monica, Calif., says it's important that the federal government allows people to identify more than one race. "It's about time, isn't it?" says Edwards, who is half Japanese and half German/Scottish/Welsh and spent years frustrated by forms that boxed her into one or the other.

"That was annoying," says Edwards, 50, a freelance production supervisor of national TV ads. "I would sit there for about a minute and get a little miffed and I would end up picking white. … Isn't that reverse discrimination? I could no more say I'm just white than I could say I'm just Japanese."

Surveys suggest that younger generations are much less concerned with race than older Americans, Harrison says.

"For the younger part of our society, race is going to be less of a factor when they decide partners, whom they're going to church with, where they're going to live," Frey says. "It won't be exactly color-blind but much more color-blind."

In this day and age, Edwards says, "with all the travel we can do, we're not all going to be white or black. … At some point we're all going to be so mixed we're all going to be the same color."