Francis Wardle, PhD
When studying for my BS degree at the Pennsylvania State University, I had a U.S. History class in which we studied Andrew Jackson’s victory against the British at New Orleans. My teacher had us read three different accounts of the American victory, published during three different periods in U.S. history. One account reported Jackson as a national hero, another as an incompetent drunk, and a third as a mediocre general. I was reminded of this class with when I read the Research Focus: Multiracial Identity in the book, Racial and Ethnic Diversity in USA, by Richard Schaefer (2014). This chapter feature describes events leading up to the momentous change in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) system that resulted in the 2000 census (and a variety of 2010 federal school and employment forms) allowing respondents to check “two or more races” after many years of being forced to select a single race. (Of note, the change was made by the OMB, which then required changes in the census and a vast variety of other federal forms that collect demographic information). For many interracial parents who had bitterly fought school officials over these forms, this change was long overdue.
However, as someone who was actively involved in the multiracial movement of the 1970s-90s, I can attest that the account provided in this book is dread wrong. It states, 1) the reason a single multiracial or biracial category was not provided, but rather a choice of “two or more races” was selected, was because “pretests showed very few people would use it” (p. 13); 2) the 9 million people who eventually chose two or more races on the 2000 Census was less than many observers had anticipated, and 3) race is now universally considered a social construct as opposed to a biological reality.
In recent years, several reports have been written about the multiracial movement and the events that resulted in the change to the OMB racial category system (see Williams, 2003, 2006; Williams-Leon, 2003). However, these reports are not by people who were actively involved in the movement, but are by people affiliated with single-race and ethnicity departments at colleges and major universities. For a variety of political and social reasons, these scholars have seen a need to distort the actual record.
I was involved in various aspects of the multiracial movement, and one of the major goals of the movement was to change these federal categories. I even visited the offices of OMB with my good friend Edwin Darden from the Washington, DC support group, the Interracial Family Circle, on one of my many visits to the capitol. However, despite what many have reported, pressuring the OMB to provide a category enabling children and people of mixed-heritage to select a choice that truly resented who they were was not the only goal of the many support groups. My point here is not to provide a detailed account of how the changes in OMB were achieved (which can be described by others who were more directly involved), but to refute the account provided in Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the USA, by R. T. Schaefer (2014). Below is the view I have of these three issues.
A Biracial and Multiracial Option Was Not Provided Because Too Few People Would Use It
This is blatantly false. The reason OMB did not provide a multiracial or biracial choice is because of vehement, forceful and political opposition from a vast variety of civil rights and single-race advocacy groups, including the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), NAACP, La Raza, the Urban League, and various Asian and Native American groups (Williams, 2003, 2006; Williams-Leon, 2003). These organizations insisted that OMB approve an approach in which the choice of two or more races could be disaggregated back to the traditional single-race options, so that these groups would not reduce their numbers from the various demographics counts viewed as critical to social and political power.
According to Williams (2003, 2006), the civil rights community told the U.S. Congress that a multiracial category would “imperil the statistics needed to enforce civil rights laws” (p. 42). The Association of Multiethnic Americans (AMEA), a national umbrella group representing some of the local interracial support groups, and Project Race, initially supported a federal multiracial category. However, eventually all the multiracial groups except Project Race and Charles Byrd (an advocate and publisher of Interracial Voice) supported the” two or more races” option as the only approach that these various politically positioned civil right groups would support. It was clear that it was either the “two or more races” option, or nothing.
In this discussion, it is also important to deeply understand that the multiracial movement was not a united group with national leadership, clearly articulated goals, and a universally accepted mission statement (despite what many have reported). Rather, it was a disjointed collection of individuals and support groups; people with only one thing in common: advocating for the rights of multiracial children, interracial families, and people of mixed-heritage. For example, AMEA, the national umbrella group, was comprised of only 13 of the national local support groups out of a list of more than 30 active groups, and many active individuals. Further, AMEA had no formal relationship with three very involved national publications: New People, Interracial Voice, and Interrace.
Thus one can convincingly argue that most of the multiracial support groups and other individuals and organizations working towards acknowledgement and acceptance of interracial families and multiracial people in the U.S. had no formal representation at the various hearings for the changes in the OMB categories.
Fewer People Selected “Two or More Races” in the 2000 Census than Many Expected
This too is untrue. Many news outlets expressed surprise at the large numbers of people who choose too or more races on the new form – 2.9% of the total, and about 9 million people. I believe this was due to two main factors:
• The media was simply unaware of the number of people in this country who viewed themselves as multiracial, even when the government saw them as invisible; and
• The media – like so many Americans – assumed that the U.S. Census categories somehow naturally and accurately reflected all Americans’ personal identity choices.
Further, because for so many years the OMB had only allowed people to choose a single racial identity on the census and other federal forms, many people of mixed-heritage had reluctantly become used to this system. Supporting the system was both the one-drop rule, and the rule of hypodescent. Both of these “rules” require individuals of mixed-heritage to select a single racial identity, thus fitting neatly within the previously-used demographic approach. Many mixed-race people and organizations who challenged the traditional OMB rules were roundly criticized and even harassed by single-race minority groups for jeopardizing the social and political clout of single-race groups, being disloyal to their race, and causing all of the federal collection agencies to be forced to use “inaccurate” data. In fact, Arthur Fletcher, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at the time, exclaimed, that “he could see a whole host of light-skinned black Americans running for the door the minute they have another choice” (House subcommittee testimony, Nov 3, 1973, as cited in Williams, 2006, page 42).
Race is a Social Construct
Until the results of the Human Genome Project, most multicultural textbooks followed the popularly held notion that race is somehow a biological scientific reality. This is the first diversity textbook I have read that has finally abandoned this outdated and unscientific notion, although later in the book the author returns back to the old, biological definition! However, ironically in a chapter feature that focuses on changes in the U.S. Census, and how OMB changed the federal forms to allow respondents to check “two or more races”, the author does not acknowledge that race in America is obviously a highly political activity! The entire process of OMB hearings and the intense political pressure by various special interest groups, is a classic example of politics.
One example of the political nature of racial categories is that, while people of mixed-heritage in the U.S. have been struggling for years for official acceptance and inclusion, especially children, mixed-race people in Brazil don’t think twice about their identity, because mixed-race people in that country have always been acknowledged and officially accepted by the federal government and by Brazilian society (Fish, 2002). And in Belize there are a variety of different racial combinations that would all be included under the broad African American category, if they were used in this country. Another example is that, while the U.S. Census recently adopted a Hispanic ethnic category (many of whom are multiracial), they took a very long time to provide a “two or more races” option, and have continually refused to provide a multiracial option. One can only imagine why the political nature of these racial constructs is not addressed in this text; one guess would be because this reinforced the pervasive academic view in America that a single-race view of diversity is not only somehow socially acceptable, but is also supported by most unlighted and progressive people.
In the book, Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the USA, by Richard Schaefer (2014), there is a feature, Multiracial Identity, in which the history of the change to the federal OMB categories is detailed. This was a monumental change to how our government collects demographic data, and a description of it belongs in any book on racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. However, the report is incorrect on several levels. First, it argues that a separate multiracial category was not given as an option because too few people would use it. The truth is that this option was rejected as a result of heavy and persistent opposition from single-race advocacy groups, and a variety of national civil rights organizations, including NAACP, the Urban League, La Raza, EEOC and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The check “two or more races” was a compromise acceptable to these powerful groups. Secondly, the books states that the number of people who selected “two or more races” was lower than expected. This too is incorrect; many in the media were surprised that in a society where race has been socially and politically codified in single-race terms for so long, so many would select two or more races on the 2000 census. And, finally, this feature claims that race is socially constructed, while ignoring the obvious (since it describes a change in the political process) political nature of race and counting people by race. Slavery, the Jim Crow laws, the eugenics movement, and the one-drop rule were decidedly political constructs.
Fish, J. M. (Ed.)(2002). Race and intelligence. Separating science from myth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Schaefer, R. T. (2014). Racial and ethnic diversity on the USA. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Williams, K. M. (2003). From civil rights to the multiracial movement. In L. I. Winters & H. L. DeBose (Eds.), New faces in a changing America: Multiracial identity in the 21st century (pp. 85-98). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Williams, K. M. (2006). Mark one or more. Civil rights in multiracial America. Ann Arbor, MI. The University of Michigan Press.
Williams-Leon, T. (2003). Check all that apply: Trends and perspectives among Asian-descent multiracials. In L. I. Winters & H. L. DeBose (Eds.), New faces in a changing America: Multiracial identity in the 21st century (pp. 168-175). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.