U.S. Considers Adding Statistics On 'Multiracial'

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Susan R. Graham says one of her proudest moments came four years ago when her daughter, Megan, registered for kindergarten.

Beyond the questions about immunization records, emergency phone numbers, and date of birth were the boxes on race: Please check one. It was a deceptively simple question.

Megan's mother is white and her father is black, so she checked the box that before the 1992-93 school year didn't exist in Fulton County, Ga.: "multiracial."

"She said to me, 'Mommy, there's my box,'" recalls Ms. Graham, who was instrumental in getting that box on public school forms in her county and, eventually, the state of Georgia.

For statistical purposes, the United States generally divides its residents into five categories: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, black, white, and Hispanic.

But people like Ms. Graham say those classifications aren't enough to account for the vast racial and ethnic diversity in a nation of 265 million people. They want the federal government to broaden its designations as Georgia and other states have done, to ensure that multiracial children and adults are officially recognized on school, employment, and medical forms that require identification by race or ethnicity.

The federal government is considering some changes in the way it keeps track of people. By the fall, the White House Office of Management and Budget is expected to decide whether to change its system, which was adopted in 1977 and has since been copied by many local and state governments.

Though the implications for schools remain largely unexplored, any changes could affect such areas as desegregation and multicultural education, among others.

The sensitive topic has renewed a larger debate over the role of race in a society that, fueled by immigration and interracial marriages, is growing only more diverse and complex. It comes at a time when affirmative action and race-based preferences are under attack. Last week, in response to a recent speech by President Clinton on race relations, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., suggested adding a multiracial category as a first step toward breaking down racial division. ("Clinton's Call for Racial Harmony Sparks Debate on Education Policy," in This Week's News.)

Broad Impact

Ms. Graham, a Roswell, Ga., mother of two, is the president of Project RACE, or Reclassify All Children Equally. The group is part of a growing movement that says traditional racial-classification schemes are outdated, inaccurate, and unfairly force individuals to choose only one part of their heritage.

"Right now, multiracial people are invisible," Ms. Graham said. "And that's not acceptable."

While the 1977 federal standards were created to govern the collection and reporting of data, over time they have taken on much broader significance. The designations are used in enforcing civil rights laws, apportioning voting districts, collecting and reporting school enrollment statistics, and gathering information for the decennial census, among other purposes.

"At the time, there was no idea that [the classification system] would have the political and social impact it ended up having," said Edith K. McArthur, a demographer with the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics who serves on an OMB advisory panel.

While the federal categories make for tidier statistical work, critics say they are so oversimplified as to be almost meaningless.

More than 9.8 million people marked their race as "other" on the 1990 U.S. Census.

The same census counted 2 million children with parents of different races. In 1970, that figure was less than 500,000.

Critics also charge that elements of the current system derive from an inherently racist and antiquated theory rooted in slavery: the "one-drop rule." That rule means that anyone with an African-American ancestor is considered black.

While the changes under discussion include breaking down the existing categories into smaller, more specific groups--and even doing away with racial categories altogether--the debate has largely focused on the adoption of a multiracial category.

Challenges for Schools

School is often the place where parents first face official questions about their children's racial identity. Schools collect racial and ethnic data to look at student achievement, dropout rates, discipline, and other indicators. Some use the information to achieve racial balance in schools. Many collect it because they must report the information to the state and federal governments.

The Department of Education's office for civil rights, for example, uses such data to enforce civil rights laws, investigate complaints, and track school trends. The NCES uses such data for its reports and research.

Though any changes in the federal categories could make it more difficult to track historical trends, Ms. McArthur of the NCES said, the task would not be impossible. OCR officials declined comment on whether a multiracial category would complicate enforcement of civil rights laws, as some have suggested.

Some states, prodded by parents, have approved the use of a multiracial category on school forms. Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio have taken that step. But most of them report very small multiracial numbers statewide.

Although Ohio has seen a fivefold increase in the number of students who call themselves multiracial since the category first became an option in 1992-93, those students still make up just 0.59 percent of the state's 1.8 million students. In Florida, some 6,000 children were classified this year as multiracial out of 2.3 million public schoolchildren--about the same as Florida's population of American Indian students.

Shifting Classifications

If the federal government decides to go a similar route, observers predict, more states will follow suit and the multiracial ranks will grow. That could lead to changes in areas such as student-assignment policies designed to achieve racial balance.

In Indiana, which started collecting data on multiracial or "mixed race" students in 1995, some of those issues already have surfaced.

Since 1971, the 42,000-student Indianapolis district has been under a court-ordered desegregation plan that calls for students to be grouped as "black" and "other." Like all students who identify themselves as something other than black, those who say they are mixed race or multiracial are "other," too.

Some parents have changed their children's racial designation from multiracial to black or white, or vice versa, to better their chances of being admitted to magnet schools, district officials say.

Superintendent Esperanza Zendejas said the district does not consider it a major problem. "We don't play policeman in that regard," she said. "Who am I to say this child is not from Hispanic or other descent? That's not the role that schools should play."

Some parents question why their multiracial students cannot be counted as minorities in the racial-balance equation. And some parents don't like being asked about their child's race at all.

"It's a touchy issue," said Mary Jo Dare, the district's director of student services. "And it's only going to become a bigger issue in the future."

Some in the multiracial movement say it's only fair that people have the right to change their racial identity over time and under different circumstances. So in theory, a student with mixed heritage could be multiracial when registering for school, but Hispanic or black or Asian when applying for college scholarships.

"Of course people are going to 'game' the system. All the incentives are there," said Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts board of education and a co-author of an upcoming book on race in America. She is critical of forced desegregation and race-based preferences. "To the degree the multiracial debate points up the absurdity of all this, well good, because I want the whole system to collapse."

A Place at the Table

But for parents like Michelle Erickson of Naperville, Ill., the issue runs deeper. Her son, Alexander, will start 4th grade in the fall as a multiracial child.

But when she lived in Chicago and was shopping around for a kindergarten, she signed Alexander up for a magnet school lottery. The application told Ms. Erickson, who is white, to check one race for her son, who has an African-American father. She told the school she could not.

"I said, what do you mean he can't be both? He is both," she recalled. "They said 'sorry.' I was fit to be tied."

She wound up enrolling him in a private school that did not ask such questions. Later, when she moved to the suburbs, she was able to classify Alexander as multiracial in the public schools there.

Carlos A. Fern ndez, the founder of the San Francisco-based Association of MultiEthnic Americans, says the multiracial debate is about much more than a box to check off: It's about recognition and a place at the nation's table.

Mr. Fern ndez said his multiracial children have a mixture of Mexican and European heritage. "They are meshing cultures. And yet the idea out there is that somehow it's not as authentic or valid as anything else."

Multiracial student clubs are popping up on college campuses, and support groups, magazines, and Internet sites abound.

Golfer Tiger Woods, who has referred to himself as "Cablinasian" for his mixed Thai, black, and white heritage, has become a symbol for the multiracial movement. A "Tiger Woods" bill in Congress seeks to establish a multiracial census category.

Ethnic Politics?

But not everyone agrees that such a category is a good idea.

Established civil rights and advocacy groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Council of La Raza have raised concerns.

They fear such a category would cloud civil rights issues and dilute the numbers of established minority groups, resulting in diminished political clout and public benefits. In K-12 education, however, most program dollars are tied to poverty, or to overall enrollment.

While relatively small numbers of people have identified themselves as multiracial on pilot tests by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and other agencies, groups like the NAACP counter that there is no real way to predict future behavior.

Discrimination, these groups argue, occurs on the basis of what others perceive you to be, not how you perceive yourself. The federal categories, they say, were not designed as an outlet for self-expression, but as a means of counting numbers and tracking patterns.

Ms. Graham, the Georgia mother, believes those groups are just trying to protect themselves.

"All the studies have shown their numbers are not really disturbed," she said. "And my view is, if they are disturbed, then they were wrong in the first place."

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