The University Record, January 22, 2001

Researchers discuss promises, pitfalls of multiracial identity category in 2000 census

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2001: Commitment and Renewal

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

An overflow crowd of more than 100 people attended “Census 2000 and Beyond: Collecting and Interpreting Race and Ethnicity Data,” a panel discussion in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. co-sponsored by the Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the Department of Sociology. The event was broadcast on the Web, and an archived version is available at

David L. Featherman, ISR director and professor of sociology and of psychology, led the discussion, which examined the background and implications of the new census data on race, scheduled to be released March 31. In the 2000 census, for the first time, Americans were instructed to mark one or more racial groups to describe their identity.

“The census is a mirror of how we answer the question of race as a people at any given historical moment,” Featherman noted. “And yet the census is more than just a mirror. It’s also a prism—it tells us more than the measurable facts per se. It refracts these facts about race and expresses how we think we should see ourselves.”

U.S. Rep. Thomas Sawyer (D-Ohio), chair of the Subcommittee on Census and Population, which oversaw initial planning for the 2000 census, noted that the current changes in reporting the U.S. population’s racial and ethnic identity are driven by a demographic reality that’s becoming more and more evident. “We need to recognize one another in a form that is instructive, useful and accurate as we head into the next century,” Sawyer said. But he warned that a growing use of the multiracial identity category might lead to a loss of data needed to enforce civil rights laws.

Kim Williams, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University, presented an overview of her empirical study of the multiracial movement that acted as a catalyst for the revision of racial categories in the 2000 census.

“It was and is a small movement,” Williams noted, “without much in the way of resources. But the movement was in the right place at the right time. And it received support from congressional Republicans,” for reasons that Williams found troubling.

Princeton University sociologist Ann Morning reviewed several potential approaches to interpreting the coming multiracial census data, including the guidelines issued by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget recommending that all white and non-white multiracial individuals be allocated to non-white single-race categories for the purpose of assessing adherence to civil rights agencies.

“This is bound to be a controversial approach,” she said. “Some may find it offensive because it hearkens back to the ‘one-drop rule’; others may find it offensive because it won’t make it possible to track discrimination against multiracial individuals.” But the real danger, she noted, lies in the possibility that the complexities of counting the multiracial category may lead people to question the value of collecting racial data and eventually erode support for civil rights.

Morning also offered some thoughts on how the media may interpret the new multiracial data: “The main story, I think, is going to be: ‘Look, there’s a new multiracial population in America.’ This will lend itself to a narrative of progress—a really appealing, optimistic message that racism is on the wane. We do have increasing rates of interracial marriage, but not among all groups,” she noted. And she worried that the upbeat emphasis, along with a tendency to focus on multiracial celebrities such as Tiger Woods and Mariah Carey, may obscure the less satisfying story about all the progress that needs to be made.

David R. Harris, the U-M sociologist who organized the event, presented his theory about the multidimensional basis of racial classification, using himself as an example to illustrate how different perspectives and contexts influence racial identity.

“I have Black, Native American and probably white ancestry,” he noted. “But I tell people, if they ask, that I’m Black. Why do I do that? Because of how I look, and more importantly, because of how others think I look and how they relay that back to me.”

Depending on the context he is in, though, Harris may be perceived in different ways. “I was in Los Angeles giving a seminar about this,” he said, “and someone said, ‘Oh, I thought you were Middle Eastern!’”

Harris also presented the results of some empirical research he recently conducted, showing that context matters even in identifying one’s own race. In a study of 20,000 adolescents who were asked the same question about their racial identity—both at school using a written questionnaire and at home by an interviewer, Harris found that 6.8 percent said they were mixed race at school while just 3.5 percent said they were mixed race when asked at home.

U-M sociologist and demographer Reynolds Farley presented findings from his analysis of responses to the questions on racial and ethnic identity from the Census Bureau dress rehearsal and the 1999 American Community Survey, conducted in 21 areas around the country.

“About one in 40 people reported more than one race,” he noted, with wide variations depending on geographic location.

Elizabeth Cole, associate professor of women’s studies, wrapped up the discussion by reflecting on the ways in which multiracial identity is similar to and different from ethnic identity. Like ethnicity, she noted, multiracial identity is socially constructed. But unlike ethnicity, it isn’t heritable. It’s not focused on the past, on nostalgia for a shared history or a heritage to be preserved, but on the future. Many of the key activists in the multiracial movement are not themselves multiracial, she observed, but are the parents of multiracial children.

Following questions from the audience, those attending the program broke up into small discussion groups for further discussion of the issues.