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by Andrew Beveridge
(Feb '01) How many New Yorkers consider themselves multiracial? When the Census Bureau releases the first detailed results from Census 2000 in March we will begin to find out. "It's one of the most exciting demographic dramas in world history," said Kenneth Prewitt, who stepped down as the head of the Census Bureau earlier this month with the change in presidential administrations. Prewitt thinks that Census 2000 will go down in history as the event that began to redefine race in American society.
The revolution is the result of a small change in the wording of one question. In the 1990 Census, a list of racial categories was preceded by instructions that read: "Fill ONE circle for the race that the person considers himself/herself to be." In 2000, the instructions read: "Mark ONE OR MORE races to indicate what this person considers himself/herself to be."
The notion that people belong to one and only one race was thus no longer "official." Of course scholars, such as the members of the American Anthropological Association, have long recoiled from the very notion of race, viewing it as an antiquated concept. But with the government weighing in, it is no longer a philosophical conversation, but a decision that will have practical consequences.
It will certainly make redistricting more complex. Last census there were five basic racial categories This time there will be 126, representing all the various permutations and combinations of races. It will also complicate such previously simple tasks as computing the median income for blacks or whites, or determining a city's racial composition. (In 1999, according to Census estimates, New York City, which had 7.4 million inhabitants, was 57.9 percent white, 31.6 percent black or African American, 0.5 percent Native American, and 10 percent Asian American or Pacific islander. About 28.1 percent were Hispanic.) The government is now making efforts to aggregate those claiming two or more races to keep some comparability with the earlier system, and civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, have recommended that "blacks" only mark one race on their census forms
Yet, make no mistake about it, race as we knew it is no longer tallied in the United States. We can only guess at the ramifications. There is a parallel from 1980, when the Census Bureau replaced a question asking the country of origin of the person's parents with a question about the person's "ancestry." What happened as a result was summed up in the wry title of an article by Michael Hout and Joshua Goldstein published in the American Sociological Review: "How 4.5 Million Irish Immigrants Became 40 Million Irish Americans." We are, in other words, what we say we are, and we are likely to say a lot. Beginning as a biological concept, race has evolved into a question of self-identity and self-identification within a social and political context.
To say that a confusing mix of racial categories is completely new, though, is to show an ignorance of American history. A Congressional Commission in 1911 adopted the view that the world consisted of hundreds of separate races, such as Norwegian, Swedish and French. At the time, the U.S. Census itself classified virtually all immigrants from Europe simply as "white." However, going back at least to 1850, the government grappled with the notion of the multi-racial black and white. In 1890, the Census Bureau instructed its enumerators: "Be particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons. The word 'black' should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; 'mulatto,' those persons who have from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; 'quadroon,' those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and 'octoroon,' those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood."
By 1920, the Bureau had simplified its definitions in its instructors to its enumerators: "the term "black" (B) includes all Negroes of full blood, while the term "mulatto" (Mu) includes all Negroes having some proportion of white blood."
Starting in 1930, people in the United States could only officially be of one race. Indeed, the 1930 instructions nicely define the so-called "one drop" rule, to wit: "A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood. Both black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction."
The Bureau worked hard over the next 60 years to get it right. In 1940: "For any mixture of white and nonwhite, use the race of the non-white parent. If both parents are non-white, use the race of the father, except any mixture of Negro and Indian are to be returned as Negro." In 1950: "Use the race of the non-white parent or the race of the father if both parents are non-white." In 1960 and 1970: "Use the race of the father. If the father's race can not be determined, use the first race listed by the person." In 1980 and 1990: "Use the race of the mother. If the mother's race can not be determined, use the first race listed by the person."
So now that that is all thrown out, how many New Yorkers are likely to have reported that they are of more than one race? We can make an estimate by looking at previous surveys, and the so-called Census Dress Rehearsal in 1998 in other parts of the country (in which anywhere from five to 11 percent of a given population chose two or more races). We will discover that somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 New Yorkers have marked themselves as being of more than one race.
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