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For 7 Million People in Census, One Race Category Isn't Enough

March 13, 2001

For 7 Million People in Census, One Race Category Isn't Enough


WASHINGTON, March 12 Nearly seven million people say they belong to more than one race, a small, largely youthful generation of multiracial Americans in an increasingly diverse country, data from the 2000 census show.

For the first time, Americans were allowed to identify themselves as a member of more than one race, choosing from six racial categories, an option taken by more than 2 percent of the nation's 281.4 million people. Demographers said it was a reflection of the growing waves of immigrants and interracial marriages in the country.

The four most common interracial categories were white and black, white and Asian, white and American Indian/Alaska native, and white and "some other race," a box that census officials said was checked mainly by Latinos. Five percent of blacks, 6 percent of Hispanics, 14 percent of Asians and 2.5 percent of whites identified themselves as multiracial.

According to census figures released today, the nation's Hispanic population grew by about 58 percent, and Asians by 48 percent from a decade ago, with children younger than 18 making up much of the growth.

The data released today were the first broad brush strokes of a national portrait that in the coming months will also include statistics on age, housing, income, education and ancestry gleaned from questionnaires and census interviews.

Today's information filled in the racial and ethnic pieces of a shifting national mosaic and carries broad implications for a country that in many ways is grappling with how to view itself as it enters a new century.

"Obviously, we're moving beyond a black-white paradigm of race," said Sonia M. Perez, a deputy vice president at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization. "This also challenges the idea of what race is and shows us that people are fluid in how they perceive themselves."

These were the highlights of the data:

  • Almost one in three Americans is a member of a minority, compared with one in five in 1980, with minority defined as anyone not a non-Hispanic white.

  • The nation's Hispanic population is roughly equal to the slower-growing black population as the largest minority.

  • Thirty-five percent of Latinos are younger than 18, compared with 24 percent of non-Latinos.

  • Blacks 17 and younger are nearly four times as likely as blacks 50 and older to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race.

    By permitting people to choose an array of racial identities white, black, Asian, American Indian and Alaska native, Pacific islander and Hawaiian native or "some other race" the 2000 census presents a matrix of 63 racial categories, compared with 5 a decade ago.

    The number of Americans who called themselves multiracial is relatively small. For instance, 8,637 Americans said they belong to five races, and 823 checked all six racial boxes.

    Nonetheless, demographers and sociologists said, the more nuanced definitions may help break down racial barriers.

    "This is a beginning of our having to redefine this social myth that we call race and to look at it in a different way than we have in the past," said Levonne Gaddy, a social worker in Tucson who is president of the Association of Multiethnic Americans. Ms. Gaddy said she checked white, black and American Indian.

    Indeed, the American Indian category offers one of the more interesting glimpses into the census's new racial classification. The number of American Indians and Alaska natives who defined themselves by only that category grew by 26 percent in the past decade to 2.5 million. But when the number of people who said they were part Indian were added, the total ballooned to 4.1 million, a 110 percent increase since 1990.

    Dowell Myers, an urban demographer at the University of Southern California, said the discrepancy between the two groups illustrated pride in a native American heritage and the fact that American Indians had had centuries to intermarry with other groups.

    Because all who said they belonged to more than one racial group were counted separately in each of the six categories, the sum of all of these groups far exceeded 100 percent of the population.

    Because of this, data from the 2000 census are not directly comparable with previous census figures.

    Even as some proponents of the new census praised its ability to capture a more detailed racial and ethnic picture, Mr. Myers and some other critics voiced concern that the process might inadvertently harm efforts to help minorities.

    "Making the categories fuzzy makes it hard to track progress of racial groups over time, particularly in the areas of education, occupations and incomes," Mr. Myers said.

    At a news conference today, Census Bureau officials were pelted with questions about the value of the category "some other race."

    The officials acknowledged that 97 percent of the 15.4 million people who checked the "some other race" box were Hispanics who ignored requests by federal officials to indicate their Hispanic origin in the ethnic category, not racial category.

    "Hispanic" is a catch-all term designed to cover an array of Spanish- speaking people. In the federal statistical system, ethnic origin is considered separate from race.

    Census officials acknowledged they might have been mistaken to include a "some other race" box, when people already could pick more than one race.

    "Some people think it muddied the waters; some people think it helped in collecting information," said Jorge del Pinal, assistant chief of the Census Bureau's population division. "A lot of people were frustrated if they didn't find a category that they're interesting in reporting in."

    But Claudette Bennett, chief of the Census Bureau's racial statistics branch, was blunter: "With 50-50 hindsight, after we went with the Āmark-one-or-more' construction to the race question, we probably should have taken the Āsome other race' box off of the questionnaire."

    Even so, experts say there is no disputing some of the reasons that give the United States a more diverse hue. Ms. Bennett said interracial unions, including marriages and domestic partnerships, increased to two million in 1990 from 500,000 in 1970, using the latest statistics available.

    The multiracial mix varies not only by age group, but also by states, which have varying histories of assimilation. In New Jersey, for instance, 2.5 percent of the population said they belonged to more than one race; in Mississippi, only 0.7 percent said they were multiracial.

    Douglas J. Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization, published research in the last two years showing that about 1 in 10 black men marries a white woman, slightly higher than the ratio of black women who marry white men.

    Mr. Besharov said his study also found that black and white couples today were more likely to have children than biracial couples in past decades, who tended to marry late or after failed earlier marriage.

    "Parents today feel the climate won't be as difficult for their children," Mr. Besharov said.

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