Stir over Census labels Color-blind society?: Calls for 'multiracial' category stir controversy.

July 18, 1996

IT WAS inevitable that a country founded on the ideal of equality would nourish a comforting vision of itself as a melting pot. It was equally predictable that the obstacles standing in the way of a true melting pot -- from the destructive influences of racism to the devotion of ethnic groups to long-held traditions -- would make the task difficult. Yet the great strength of this country's people has been their ability to rise to meet these challenges generation after generation.

One such challenge -- whether to allow Americans to designate themselves as multiracial for Census purposes -- may seem a relatively minor one. But its implications and emotional resonance are far-reaching.

There has been a sharp increase in interracial marriages. Only 30 years ago, such marriages were illegal in many states. Now, a new study shows that 12 percent of new marriages in 1993 by blacks were to white partners. Out of 57 million married couples in America, some 500,000 are black-white.

What happens when the children of these marriages are asked to categorize their race? Census forms, for instance, allow for only four choices -- white; black; American Indian and Alaska native, or Asian and Pacific Islander. A campaign to persuade the Census Bureau to include a "multiracial" option in the 2000 Census has been gathering ground in recent years. To advance the cause, supporters are planning a Multiracial Solidarity March, styled on the Million Man March, for July 20.

But Census figures have political ramifications, influencing everything from the composition of legislative districts to the funding of many government programs. A person who chooses to designate himself as multiracial rather than black could end up helping to dilute black political influence. Some critics even see the category as a way for people to minimize or deny their blackness.

We suspect, however, that for most multiracial Americans the proposition stirs thoughts that are less political and more personal. Must they choose one heritage over the other? As more interracial marriages produce more such children, maybe they will help Americans as a whole come to a more sophisticated -- and more scientific -- understanding that humans are a race of many colors.

Pub date: 7/18/96

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