Counting Multiracial People in the Census: The Unfulfilled Wish for More Data

People who study the multiracial population are constantly confronted with the problem of small numbers to work with.  A recent article I co-authored on the multiracial health (Bratter, Jenifer and Bridget K. Gorman. Forthcoming. “Does Multiracial Matter? A Study of Racial Disparities in Self Rated Health. Demography)  required combining seven years of data from a health survey (over 1.7 million cases) to get 20,000 mixed-race folks for analysis.  The 2000 Census, with its “check all that apply” race question, remains the database with the largest number of cases and the 2010 Census will be the first to count race the same way as the preceding installment. While this may sound like a mundane detail, this will allow us to gauge growth, decline, or stability of this population and whether this will affect the population bases of single-race communities.  If the sheer anticipation doesn’t shake you to your core, perhaps you have forgotten the history of introducing this option into the Census.

Back in the 1990’s, deciding how to count the multiracial population was a hot political controversy, pitting two sides of a debate on race and identity against each other.  According to Williams (Williams, Kimberley M. 2006. Mark one or More: Civil Rights in Multiracial America. Boston: Harvard University Press), multiracial organizations argued that the previous approach forced mixed-race children to choose one race and one side of themselves.  Civil rights groups argued that this would weaken the population bases and the political power of monoracial groups, unnecessarily complicate the tracking of enforcement of civil rights legislation (which uses Census counts), and, unofficially provide an option for individuals who wished to abandon their race. Introducing “check all that apply”, not a single multiracial box, seemed like the perfect resolution. Multiracial people could be enumerated and be linked back to their component groups for tracking dynamics of monoracial communities.

Despite these hopes and fears, things remained pretty much the same.  Although about 6.7 million persons (no small demographic potatoes) choose two or more races, it made the biggest difference for groups that had faced issues of mixed-heritage and identity for centuries – American Indians and Native Hawaiians.  Meanwhile, there was little movement in the population base of the largest groups: Whites, Blacks, and to a lesser extent Asians. Also, approximately half of this group was under 18, which may mean that parents of multiracial children were declaring this as a race (Jones, Nicholas and Amy S. Smith. 2001. “Two or more Races Population : 2000.” [pdf] United States Census Bureau).  As Reynolds Farley, declared in 2004, this was a “social movement that succeeded, but failed” to dramatically change our way of thinking about race (Farley, Reynolds. 2004. “Identifying with Multiple Races: A Social Movement that Succeeded but Failed?” Pp 123-128 in The Changing Terrain of Race and Ethnicity edited by Maria Krysan and Amanda Lewis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation).  Maybe it’s just about timing, as many tell me. Including multiracial in any form is a recent development, the public has simply not gotten used to checking that box (or boxes). But alas, Farley’s estimates of inter-censual growth using the American Community Survey show a decline in the percentage of people selecting more than one race, from 2.4 to 1.9 percent (Farley, Reynolds. 2006. “The Multiple Race Population: Is it increasing or decreasing?” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. Montreal, Canada).

This raises a bigger question – why haven’t things changed more?  Aren’t we living in as multiracial society as we ever have? On one hand, multiculturalism seems to be everywhere, from mixed-race celebrities and high profile interracial couples, to growing racial/ethnic diversity. And ofcourse, there’s the rise of the nation’s first openly mixed-race U.S. President.  But even Obama’s multiracial flag isn’t flown that high.  He is universally touted as our first “Black” president, a racial identity he solidly embraces.  And he’s not alone.  Several studies using 2000 data show that selecting single races for biracial children is not uncommon. Since the U.S. Census ceased using enumerators, choosing a racial category goes far beyond simple ancestral accounting, which would place most everyone in the multiracial camp if they had the option. It reflects a sense of who we are and most importantly how we are treated.

Quantifying “treatment” is never an easy task, but any cursory look at social trends tells us that lives are lived very differently by race.  The level of school segregation by race is nearly as high as it was in the 1960’s (Sikkink, David, and Michael O. Emerson. 2008. “School Choice and Racial Residential Segregation: The Role of Parent’s Education.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31:267-293), neighborhoods continue to be segregated by race (Wilkes, Irma and John Iceland, 2004.”Hypersegregatation in the 21st Century” Demography 41 (1): 23- 36), and while interracial marriage is increasing, its far lower than one would expect if race were not a factor (Qian, Zhenchao and Daniel Lichter. 2007. “Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage.” American Sociological Review 72:68-94).  White per capita income continues to exceed Black per capita income by more than 12,000 dollars and Blacks can expect to die on average 5 years sooner than their White counterparts (Heron MP, Hoyert DL, Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Kochanek KD, Tejada-Vera B. Deaths: Final data for 2006. National vital statistics reports; vol 57 no 14.[pdf] Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2009).  Despite declines in reporting overtly racist attitudes, minorities continue to report confronting racial prejudice and growing number of studies report that having these experiences is significantly detrimental to their health (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008. “Table 688. Per Capita Money Income in Current and Constant (2007) Dollars by Race and Hispanic Origin” in Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007, Current Population Reports, P60-235.  Author tabulation of difference between the per capita income (in 2007 dollars) for Blacks (alone or in combination), which was $18,107, and non-Hispanic Whites (alone), which was $31,051).

How can one sustain an identity “in-between” races when so much of our lives are patterned by racial divisions? From this vantage point, the paltry percentages and small sample sizes are yet one more testimony that we believe we are a multicultural society and but really aren’t.  However, what gets overshadowed is that race does not cease to matter just because one selects more than one. Living “in-between” races does not qualify one for a pass on discrimination. Population projections forecasting a coming white minority do not include as “white” those who select white alongside other races. And why should they, when the official policy of the Office of Management and Budget is to include those of partial minority and majority races among the minority group for civil rights purposes (Williams, David R., Harold Neighbors, and Jackson 2003. “Race/Ethnic Discrimination and Health: Findings from Community Studies.” American Journal of Public Health 93: 200-208). Other indicators follow suit.  According to our recent findings on multiracial health, those selecting more than one race do not have substantially better health that their component populations, and, in the case of White-American Indians, they report their health as significantly worse than their White counterparts (Goldstein, Joshua and Ann J. Morning. 2002. “Back in the Box:The Dilemma of Using Multiple-Race Data for Single-Race Laws.” Pp. 119-136 in The New Census Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Individuals, edited by J. Perlmann and M. C. Waters. New York: Russell Sage).  While some read these trends as examples of the unique challenges faced by the mixed-race population, this is simply a shade of the same old story: race still matters – no matter how many you choose.

So here’s my plea, if you believe you are mixed-race at all, mark those races. You’re not abandoning your tribe, nor are you escaping race.  You are just recording all your complexity, and making some researchers very happy.

~ Jenifer L. Bratter is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Rice University and Program Director for Race Scholars at Rice Institute of Urban Research (IUR).


  1. Joe

    Jenifer, thanks for the interesting post. I am puzzled why so much of this multiracial discussion leaves out the central fact that whites, especially the white elites who control most US institutions, impose racial identities on people of color, including multiracial folks (and indeed whites themselves). The central thing that has to be changed is the racist system which whites, again especially white elites, run and control. Why not feature these whites who impose as these racial identities as the major problem to be solved? (And why is the concept of “imposed identity,” whihc I have suggested before not a central concept in these studies?) These determing whites and white elites need to be regularly named and called out. It is not just “America” that does this, but the controlling elites invented the racist hierarchy and control its perpetuation in most major institutions. They are indeed the problem for multiracial folks.

    • Jenifer Bratter Author

      Thanks for your response to my blog post. You raise a fascinating question as to how does multiracialism account for the fact that white supremacy not only created racial categories, but allowed for drawing distinctions on the basis of constructed sense of racial purity. One critique, advanced by Rainer Spencer, is that while multiracial definitions presume to break down race, by advancing racial mixture as a real identity, it requires a belief in race to move forward. As another example to bolster your point, the U.S. Census reports characteristics for those selecting that race alone or in combination with other races for non-white categories only (e.g., Black (alone or in combination), Asian (alone or in combination)). This is not done for Whites – pointing to the fact that we do believe multiracial, however constituted, is a distinctively non -white status. In addition, before the option to choose more than one came along, those who would select more than one race box would often be recoded to one race by Census data keepers. Clearly, institutions hold the keys to the castle of racial definitions and continue to draw on much of the most basic principles of white supremacy.

      One thing that hems up the discourse on multiracialism currently going on in the social science literature is the sense that this constitutes the “middle ground” of race, so to speak, experiencing some privileges and not as many disadvantages as non-white component groups. What doesn’t get said, however, is the fact that the distinction of not being white, but multiracial, rests on the notion of white racial purity. Therefore, even if a biracial person has a slightly higher income than a black person but lower than a white person, the fact that the biracial person continues to have no option or space to conceive of them as a white person shows that much of the same racial stuff is still operating. Just as a counter-example, about 1/2 of the biracial Asians are identified (presumably by their parents) as White and there’s new literature to show that educational disparities between Whites and Hispanics change depending on how you identify the Hispanics – either by having an Hispanic parent vs. declaring it as a self identity. The implication is that some Hispanics (most of which are half-white) are migrating into the white category.

      One question I would pose to you is what do we do with labels, like multiracial, pan-ethnic Asian-ness, African American, and the rest whose names and groups build on communities own sense of how they want to be defined? However, it began or whatever it means, the popular discourse of multiracialism (captured in the photographic compilations of mixed-race kids, or anthologies of essays, fiction, of the memoirs by mixed-race folk) focus on how they have worked to claim their multiracial identity as a way to resolve the peculiar position of having identities that stem from two groups (or more ) that are regularly segregated from each other. Other examples, whether it’s the move towards pan-ethnicity for Asians, or African American / Black-ness, or Latino-ness again demonstrate a need by individuals to use these labels to advance their own political power by bolstering their numbers and by claiming a distinctive experience. Even if the argument could be claimed that the categories themselves represent intentions of elite whites to control how people of color are identified, what can be done about that fact that the categories hold meaning to the people that claim them?

  2. kayciiellen

    Very interesting article. Thank you for your work. Where can I read your article on multiracial health – the link above did not lead me to it – ? I am the President of Teen Project RACE. Last year I submitted a citizen’s petition to HHS on this issue. Would love to hear more.

    P.S. Now you’re making me wish I’d applied to Rice!


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