Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The New Face of America: The Number of Young Americans Who Identify Themselves as Multiracial Is Soaring. What Effect Will They Have on the Country's Racial Identity?

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

The New Face of America: The Number of Young Americans Who Identify Themselves as Multiracial Is Soaring. What Effect Will They Have on the Country's Racial Identity?

Article excerpt

Ask Michelle Lopez-Mullins, a junior at the University of Maryland and the president of the school's Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, "It depends on the day, and it depends on the options"

Lopez-Mullins, 20, is Chinese and Peruvian on one side and white and American Indian on the other. She's is part of a generation of young adults of mixed racial backgrounds who are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for decades in favor of a more fluid sense of identity.

The crop of students moving through college right now includes the largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States, and they are only the vanguard: The country is in the midst of a demographic shift driven by both immigration and intermarriage.

It's a sea change from how things were 50 years ago: In 1961, mixed-race marriages were illegal in at least 16 states. Then in 1967, those laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court's Loving v. Virginia ruling. In the years since, interracial marriage among all groups has skyrocketed.

Today one in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities, according to the Pew Research Center. Multiracial and multiethnic Americans (usually grouped together as "mixed race") are one of the country's fastest-growing demographic groups; census estimates from 2009 indicate there are about 7.5 million. And the racial results of the 2010 Census are expected to show the trend continuing or even accelerating.

Transcending Race?

Laura Wood, 19, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, is half black and half white. "I think it's really important to acknowledge who you are and everything that makes you that," she says. "If someone tries to call me black I say, 'Yes--and white.'"

No one knows how the growth of the multiracial population might change the country. Optimists say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, toward an America free of bigotry and prejudice.

Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial presence will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans, who could lose influence.

And some sociologists say that grouping all multiracial people together glosses over differences in circumstances between someone who is, say, black and Latino and someone who is Asian and white. Among interracial couples, white-Asian pairings tend to be better educated and have higher incomes, according to Reynolds Farley at the University of Michigan. And the rates of intermarriage are lowest between blacks and whites, which may be a result of the economic and social distance between them.

Rainier Spencer, director of the Afro-American Studies program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, thinks there is too much "emotional investment" in the notion of multiracialism as a panacea for the nation's age-old divisions.

"The mixed-race identity is not a transcendence of race; it's a new tribe," he says.

Americans mostly think of themselves in singular racial terms. Consider President Barack Obama's answer to the race question on the 2010 Census: Although his mother was white and his father was black, the President checked only one box, black, even though he could have marked both faces.

'One-Drop Rule'

Of course, some portion of the country's population has been mixed-race since the first white settlers had children with Native Americans. What has changed is how mixed-race Americans are defined and counted.

A century ago, the nation saw itself in a range of hues: The 1890 Census included categories for racial mixtures such as quadroon (one-fourth black) and octoroon (one-eighth black). And all the censuses from 1850 to 1920, with one exception, included a mulatto category, which was for people who had any perceptible trace of African blood. …

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