For a 'Multiracial' Identity

By John Sullivan. John Sullivan is a lawyer who writes on ethnic affairs from Baltimore. | The Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

For a 'Multiracial' Identity


John Sullivan. John Sullivan is a lawyer who writes on ethnic affairs from Baltimore., The Christian Science Monitor


HOW should the daughter of a black mother and a Hispanic father be classified? What about the son of a white man and a Japanese woman? In this country, demographics can be political destiny. Because the benefits of affirmative action and countless government programs are often distributed on the basis of group representation, the definition of who belongs to which group is far from trivial.

At present, the US Census Bureau divides all humanity into six racial and ethnic categories, none of which is "multiracial." So the children described above must select one parent's heritage over the other's. This arrangement, bizarrely enough, is the result of computer punch cards. Decades ago, when the federal government began keeping statistics on different racial and ethnic groups, the information was keyed onto punched cards 12 holes wide. Because everyone is either male or female, there was a maximum of six racial or ethnic categories.

Since then, the federal government has pigeonholed Americans into six categories: Native American; Asian or Pacific Islander; Black, not of Hispanic origin; Hispanic; White, not of Hispanic origin; and Other.

That may be changing. This summer, the Census Bureau will mail to 90,000 households around the US a survey called the Race and Ethnic Targeted Test. It is designed to evaluate several proposed changes to the Census 2000 form. The most important is the possible addition of a multiracial category.

The only organized opposition to the multiracial option comes from black groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP knows that estimates of the percentage of blacks with mixed racial heritage range as high as 70 percent or more. It worries that many blacks will identify themselves as multiracial. If so, the decrease in the black group's population could reduce its share of a wide range of benefits based on numbers, such as political districting under the Voting Rights Act. …

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