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Pride vs. Policy: Who Wins and Loses When More Choose Multi-racial Option?

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By TaRessa Stovall, Special to the NNPA from Thedefendersonline.com –

The growth of multi-racial people and their assertion that their Census choices should reflect their presence in the population is presenting an interesting quandary. After decades of loosely-organized lobbying by multi-racial people (and sometimes their families) nationwide, both the 2000 and the 2010 Census included a “Some Other Race” option to capture people who did not identify with single-race or ethnic group categories provided on the form.

While official figures haven’t yet been released, The New York Times January 30 story, “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above,” reported that, “Multiracial and multiethnic Americans (usually grouped together as “mixed race”) are one of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups. And, experts expect the racial results of the 2010 Census … to show the trend continuing or accelerating.”

The latest statistic comes from a February 8th Washington Post article which states that, “Preliminary census estimates also suggest the number of multiracial Americans jumped roughly 20 percent since 2000, to over 5 million … based on fresh government survey data, [which] offer a glimpse into 2010 census results that are being released on a state-by-state basis beginning this week.”

Pew Research Center data suggests that one in seven new marriages are between spouses of different races or ethnicities, based on 2008 and 2009 statistics. “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 immigration and intermarriage, ” The New York Times stated.

“According to estimates from the Census Bureau, the mixed-race population has grown by roughly 35 percent since 2000,” The New York Times reports. It’s not clear how much that growth is due to more multi-racial people being born or the increase in those who take advantage of the multi-racial option on the Census form.

“We’re working to figure out what are the ways in which we can further move forward so people can find themselves on the questionnaire, find themselves and their community to have a portrait of themselves,” said Nicholas Jones, Chief of the Racial Statistics Branch of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“There was no option for multi-racial people to respond to the Census until 2000,” Jones said, when there were 57 combinations of race tabulated, with white and black the most common. “Up until 2000, if you checked more than one box, only one would be tabulated,” he said.

Progress or Problems?

The issue of who checks multi-racial is a matter of policy as much as pride. Census data is used to determine a wide range of government activities; they include determining the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives and creating voting districts for Congress, state legislatures, school boards and city councils, to the allocation of billions of dollars of funds to communities for schools, roads, hospitals, senior centers, and other services.

“Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial movement will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of the number and influence of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans,” according to The New York Times.

Every time the Census has been performed—even before there was a multi-racial option– the Census Bureau has failed to fully count Blacks and other people of color. During the 2000 Census, an incredible 628,000 Blacks, and a total of 1 million people of color, were not counted. In contrast, the 2000 Census double-counted the non-Hispanic White population by approximately 2.2 million. Communities that were under-counted in the 2000 Census lost more than 4.1 billion dollars in federal and local funding.

Official multi-racial designations—boxes to check—bring their own set of challenges. “This issue has come up recently in the context of our education cases, particularly desegregation cases that are in the enforcement stage,” said Kimberly Liu, Assistant Counsel, Education Practice Group, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF).

“The federal scheme has changed recently to account for the increased existence of multi-racial persons in America,” Liu explained. In 1997, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a federal agency, revised the standards for federal data on race and ethnicity. Among the changes, OMB required federal agencies to allow individuals to identify themselves as more than one race, a reaction to increasing numbers of multiracial children and the desire to capture this increased diversity in a measurable way.”

“The new methodology was used on the Census 2000 questionnaire, and all federal agencies were supposed to adopt the new standards by January 1, 2003. So in sum, for federal purposes, school districts have to allow students to identify by more than one race,” Liu said. “The difficulty is that many of the remedies for our desegregation cases rely on single-race categories to monitor compliance. For example, let’s say 20 years ago, a court found that a school district was operating a segregated school system. In order to determine whether that school district is properly desegregating, the court would check on what percentage of black students and what percentage of white students are in each school. That was an easy calculation when students identified as a single race. But now the question has become how do you count a student who identifies as both black and white for purposes of this remedy?”

There are other considerations as well. “For criminal justice purposes, the thing to remember is that perception will dominate reality,” said Christina Swarns, Director of the Criminal Justice Practice Group at LDF. “So no matter what ‘box’ a person checks or what their racial heritage actually is, people are likely to be treated by law enforcement based on the way that they look. If they look black, they will be treated like they are black. If they look white, they will be treated like they are white. Thus, darker skinned people (even if half white/Asian/Latino/Indian/etc.) will continue to be subjected to a disproportionate number of stops, searches, seizures by the police; will continue to face harsher sentences in court; and will continue to be excluded from the opportunity to participate in jury service in disproportionate numbers.”

The complexities of the movement toward embracing and acknowledging multi-racial identity based on “and” rather than “either/or” will challenge our nation’s policies and politics for the foreseeable future. The biggest challenge is human nature vs. institutional efficiency. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge who you are and everything that makes you that,” Laura Wood, vice-president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association at the University of Maryland told The New York Times. “If someone tries to call me black I say, ‘yes—and white.’ People have the right not to acknowledge everything, but don’t do it because society tells you that you can’t.”

TaRessa Stovall is Managing Editor of TheDefendersOnline.

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0 # Guest 2011-02-15 11:26
What people need to realize it is not just Multiracial people mixed with Black ancestry who identify as Biracial or Multiracial. There is Asian/White, Latino/Asian, Latino/White, Asian/White/Latino, etc etc etc. (Even though Latino is not a race, but rather an ethnic group) who refer to themselves as Multiracial as well. Furthermore I don't think if the number of Multiracial persons mixed with African American or Black ancestry will decrease the number of African Americans in our country, nor will it limit resources to the African American community. To say that it will is another ploy to discourage Multiracial persons from identifying as such. We are not distancing ourselves from the Black community, we are still embracing it, but we are embracing our other heritages as well. Its time we stop coming up with excuses as to why we shouldn't identify as Multiracial.

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