Mixed-race Americans seek official identities

July 05, 1994|By Rogers Worthington | Rogers Worthington,Chicago Tribune

TROY, Mich. -- Walter Lindauer recalls stopping cold at the question on the 1990 census form that asked him to check off the race of his daughter, Lisa, now 9.

"There was no category to put Lisa in," Mr. Lindauer said. "I didn't know what to put."

The form had 16 boxes identifying race or ethnicity, including one for "white," one for "black" and one for "other."

"I didn't feel very good about 'other,' " said Mr. Lindauer, who is white and is divorced from Lisa's mother, Maria, who is black. But neither did he like the idea that someday Lisa, when confronted with a similar choice, might feel compelled to choose the race of one parent over the other.

The dilemma has made Mr. Lindauer -- a German-Russo/Romanian-Jewish-American computer program analyst for the Army -- a supporter of demands to add a "multiracial" box to the 2000 census and to all other government, school, employment and medical forms that ask questions about race or ethnicity.

"When a child has to pick the race of one of their parents, they are in essence being forced to deny the other parent," said Susan Graham, director of Atlanta-based Project RACE (for Reclassify All Children Equally), which, with the Association of Multi Ethnic Americans (AMEA), is lobbying for a multiracial category.

But the proposed category also raises questions, both for government agencies that collect and use racial and ethnic data and for those whose racial identity rests squarely on an existing category.

Some are concerned that if large numbers of those who now check the "black" box instead checked "multiracial," it could have implications for African-Americans as a political minority.

Such a change also could have implications for political redistricting and voting rights for blacks and Latinos, who already claim to be undercounted in the census figures.

Hearings will be held in Boston on Thursday, in Denver on Monday and in San Francisco on July 14 by the federal Office of Management and Budget on this and other questions involving the American tangle of race and ethnicity. OMB oversees standards for such classifications in collecting federal data.

Three states -- Georgia, Ohio and Illinois -- already have chosen to add a multiracial category to official and school forms. Michigan, which is considering legislation to do the same, is likely to become the fourth.

While less than 3 percent of all marriages are multiracial or interracial -- meaning marriage between blacks, whites and other races -- that figure represents a 639 percent increase since 1960, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1990, nearly 2 million children, or 4.1 percent of all U.S. children, were of mixed race, according to current population estimates.

A recent study by researchers from the Urban Institute, the National Research Council and the University of Virginia found that half of all third-generation Asian-Americans now marry outside their race. When race is extended to ethnicity, the same high rate applies to third-generation Hispanic-Americans.

Some projections of census figures anticipate that by the year 2060, a racial/ethnic population equilibrium will be reached in the United States that is 50 percent white and 50 percent all other races.

"We are really at the threshold of another major adjustment in the way we think of ourselves as a people," said Rep. Thomas Sawyer, D-Ohio, who is chairman of the congressional subcommittee on census and statistics.

Mr. Sawyer held hearings last year that led to OMB's reconsideration of race and ethnic classification.

Black-white marriages grew by 382 percent in the 30 years between the 1960 and 1990 censuses -- from 51,000 in 1960 to 246,000 in 1992. But far more prevalent are marriages between whites or blacks and Native Americans, Latinos, Japanese-Americans and others.

However, government collectors and users of racial and ethnic data say adding a multiracial category to official forms would raise a number of questions.

Those questions would touch on statistical consistency for such things as racial mortality rates and health problems, as well as laws regulating fairness in housing, home mortgages, job opportunity and minority business assistance.

"Our job, determining who the protected classes are, would be made more difficult," said Larry Pearl, director of the office of program standards and evaluations with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Unless OMB and the Commission on Civil Rights determine that multiracial people constitute a minority and thus a protected class, tracking of discrimination based on their appearance could be lost statistically.

"The reality is, regardless of whether you say you are a multiracial person, society will still see you as a person of color with one black parent, regardless of how you see yourself," said Kathy Russell, co-author of the 1992 book "The Color Complex."

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