Hearing on Multiracial Identification

Statement of Harold McDougall
Director of Washington Bureau, NAACP

Before the Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology
of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight

Hearing on Multiracial Identification
22 May 1997


Washington DC — May 22, 1997

Multiracial Categories
I. Introduction


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I am grateful for the opportunity to testify before you today on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). I am Harold McDougall, Director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP.


The NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, with over 600,000 members in the fifty states and the District of Columbia, and throughout the world. The NAACP is committed to the protection of the civil, legal, political, economic and human rights of African-Americans, and other citizens of color here in the United States.


II. Summary


The NAACP has great sensitivity on the issue of multiracial categories and some questions about its implications. We support the right of individual self-identification and support self-determination in defining one's racial makeup.


But the census may not be the correct place to make such a personal statement, particularly in light of the fact that repercussions in census numbers impact the lives of many people. Provisions of the Voting Rights Act, for example, are specifically directed at correcting past discrimination (particularly in the deep South) where African-Americans were denied their constitutional rights. With some figures showing 70% of African-Americans as possibly fitting into a multiracial category, will we be able to identify black voters in terms of fair representation?


According to the most recently-released study by the U.S. Census, relatively small numbers of African-Americans appear to identify themselves as “multiracial.” But the study is still far from a full-dress census, and we have no idea how this might play out in decades to come. History demonstrates that the effect of the census categories on the population’s perceptions of itself is not static. Certainly, the emergence and development of a “Hispanic” category in the census over the years has been correlated to and supportive of, a growth in the number of people who so identify themselves.


The enforcement of laws against discrimination in employment and lending, and against discrimination in housing and schools also depend upon census data. Overcoming the long history of discrimination in employment, lending, housing, and education requires that demographic data be kept on racial and ethnic groups who have historically been the targets of discrimination by members of the European-American majority group.


This is one of the most important purposes of OMB Directive 15 — the enforcement of civil rights laws. The aggregation of categories was not called for by Directive 15 to provide vehicles for self-identification. (Indeed, there are more than 100 groups which could legitimately request identification categories on the Census) Rather, Directive 15's aggregated categories are fashioned to enhance the enforcement of anti-discrimination and civil rights law.


Thus, the creation of a multiracial classification might disaggregate the apparent numbers of members of discrete minority groups, diluting benefits to which they are entitled as a protected class under civil rights laws and under the Constitution itself. In our quest for self-identification, we must take care not to recreate, reinforce or even expand the caste system we are all trying so hard to overcome, the caste system which the NAACP was created to oppose. If we are to reach the deep roots of the legacy of slavery, involuntary servitude, segregation, discrimination and hate violence, we must commit ourselves not merely to undo the words of forced division, but also to undo the consequences of oppressive acts.


The NAACP is watching the development of this issue carefully. At this point, we wanted the committee to be aware of our concerns as they move forward. We expect to consider the issue in a more formal way as the year unfolds. Our national convention (this year to be held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in July) has traditionally been a time when policy issues of this import are visited and processed. I will be happy to re-appear before the committee after that time to report on any new developments within our organization.


III. Why are we considering multiracial categories for the Year 2000 Census? 


Currently, the federal government uses race data for statistical and administrative purposes, including monitoring civil rights compliance. However, the Census Bureau and OMB have come under increasing pressure from those who believe the minimum racial categories set forth in OMB Directive No. 15 ("Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative reporting") do not reflect the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of our nation's population. Some have proposed changes, including the addition of a "multiracial" category. An OMB Research Working Group developed plans in response, and as an interim step conducted a supplement to the Current Population Survey in June 1994 to collect information on issues under review. The most recent development is a working paper on “Results of the 1996 Race and Ethnic Targeted Test,” issued by the Census Bureau on May 14, 1997.


IV. Who are "multiracial" (“biracial?” “Interracial?”) citizens and how does the issue of their classification fit into the overall milieu of race relations in the United States?


In 1960, only 0.4% of all married couples were interracial. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the numbers began to increase. One factor was the US Supreme Court decision in Loving v Virginia in 1967, striking down as unconstitutional laws forbidding interracial marriages. Another was a general relaxation of racial boundaries occasioned by the culture of the civil rights movement. The absolute numbers of black-white marriages, particularly of marriages in which the husband was black, increased substantially during this period, but at a much slower rate than marriages between whites and Asians and Pacific islanders. Whereas black-white marriages were one-third of all interracial marriages in 1960, interracial marriages involving one black spouse accounted for only one-seventh of all interracial marriages in 1990.


The increase in Asian-white marriages is partly explained by a dramatic increase in the numbers of Asians in the country due to changes in patterns of immigration. The increase in white servicemen marrying Asian women incident to assignments overseas may also be a factor. (In 1990, Asian-White marriages were twice as likely to involve a white husband and an Asian wife as the reverse)


Overall, during the 1970s, the number of interracial married couples more than tripled, and by 1980 represented 2.0% of all married couples. The rate of increase then slowed, so that the number of such marriages increased only from 2.0% to 3.0% of all married-couple families between 1980 and 1990. The vast majority of interracial marriages involve one white spouse.

The increase in interracial marriages has produced an increase in the percentage of all children who live in interracial households, from 1% in the 1960s to 4% in 1990. The greatest concentration of interracial marriages and multiracial children is in California, which has 26% of all interracial couples. Following are Texas (8%), New York and Oklahoma (5% each), and Florida and Washington State (4% each).


The very term " multiracial" implies the existence of "pure" and distinct races. But what does it mean, we might ask, to be "white?" What does it mean to be "black?" These are socially and politically constructed categories, unique to the United States, that are different from Asian and Hispanic categories, which have a distinct cultural component.


During the civil rights era of the 1960s, the United states was about 90% white and 10% black. Asians and Pacific Islanders were only 0.5%, Native Americans, Eskimos, and Aleuts were 0.1%, and Latinos, though an estimated 3.9%, were sorted into "black" and "white." By 1990, whites were 80.3% of the population, blacks were 12.1%, Asians and Pacific Islanders 2.9%, Native Americans, Eskimos and Aleuts 0.8% and "other" was 3.9%. Latinos, now separately counted, constituted 9% of the population. Over 33% of the growth in population during the 1980s was due to immigration


The meaning of racial/ethnic identification for specific groups and individuals varies enormously. Multiracial categories as proposed may well create confusion under these circumstances. For example, multiracial categories as proposed by multiracial advocates apply only to the children of interracial marriages. They would not apply to the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of interracial marriages. For example, the child of a black father and a white mother would thus be “multiracial.” However, if their child were to marry another multiracial child, the grandchildren would be considered black, and not multiracial. So a child with two black grandfathers and two white grandmothers would be a black child, not a multiracial child.


Yet if we look at ancestry, rather than parentage, the majority of African-Americans have mixed African, European, and Native American Indian heritage, and these mixtures took place before 1920 — the white mixture during slavery, the Native American immediately thereafter. Today, the majority of multiracial children born of black-white marriages identify with the race of the black parent. Yet the majority of multiracial children born of Asian-white marriages identify with the white parent. What will be the implications of a multiracial category for either group of children? What about the much larger group of African-American children who bear a multiracial heritage that dates back to slavery but who presently identify as Black? These open questions further emphasize the danger of taking anything other than a very cautious approach to changing the census categories.

V. Would the multiracial category protect multiracial citizens from segregation, discrimination, or hate violence?

NO. Individuals who designate themselves as multiracial on the census form will not thereby reduce by any amount the discrimination they face, which is based on appearance and not on racial classification. Consider the case of Homer Plessy, classified by the U.S. census in 1890 as an "octoroon." He was nonetheless placed in a "black" railroad car rather than a "white” railroad car, laying the groundwork for a century of legal Jim Crow segregation in the Southern United States and in other areas as well, in the landmark Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson.


Consider also the case of Anne Sorenson, a Danish actress and the African-American father of her child Liv, who were recently arrested and detained in jail for two days in New York City for “child abuse," stemming from their leaving the child in a stroller directly outside a window in a restaurant they were attending. The practice is common in Denmark.


The child was placed in a foster home, and the father of the child was allegedly physically abused when taken to the police station. His head was allegedly stuck in a toilet and his shins kicked by police, who charged him with resisting arrest." This was a multiracial child. Yet she was plucked from her parents and placed in foster care. Later, the white mother and biracial daughter were released and returned to Denmark, but the black father is being brought up on charges.


Tiger Woods' multiracial identity has not kept him from being threatened with bodily harm and death in the development of his career as a golfer, nor did it spare him the racist remarks of Fuzzy Zollner, a South African golfer popular in the United States.

Further, because historic discrimination has been against persons assigned to a single racial category –e.g., black — there is no court or legislative or other legal record of discrimination against multiracials. Without such a record of discrimination, courts today will dismiss claims of discrimination against multiracials, indicating that there is no evidence they ever suffered discrimination. Further, if multiracial continues to mean “the product of an interracial marriage” any history of discrimination against multiracials might well be moot after one generation.


VI. Could the multiracial category make it more difficult to protect members of recognized minority groups from segregation, discrimination, or hate violence?


YES. Multiracial categories, if adopted by a significant segment of the minority population, could make it difficult for government agencies and civil rights organizations to track ongoing civil rights violations. The Hispanic and Asian American communities see this possibility from the 1996 test results. The impact might involve other categories in the future.


The multiracial category in this light could well make it more difficult to identify where discrimination has taken place and is taking place, by clouding census counts of discrete minorities who have been restricted to certain neighborhood and as a consequence, to certain schools. It could cloud the census count of discrete minorities who are assigned to lower tracks in public schools. It could cloud the census count of discrete minorities kept out of certain occupations, or whose progress towards seniority or promotion has been skewed. The list goes on, to include civil rights reporting in the arenas of lending practices and the provision of health services, and beyond. These are concerns for the NAACP, and we continue to place them before the Committee.


Census data is used by all levels of government, so the impact would be at the state and local level as well. Further, the proposals could change not only the census, but all Federal program reporting and statistical activities requiring data on race and ethnicity. Thus, the negative impact on the ability to track ongoing civil rights violations would be greatly magnified.


Further, multiracial categories can reduce the level of political representation for minorities. It is unlikely that majority-minority districts will be created for multiracials, especially given the lack of recorded discrimination against them within the meaning of the Voting Rights Act.


Finally, as pointed out by the Coalition of Groups opposed to the Proposed Modification of OMB Directive No. 15 in 1995, the experience of other nations with multiracial categories, such as Brazil and South Africa, have been that such categories increase, rather than decrease social stratification and stigmatization on the basis of race.


VII. What alternatives to adopting multiracial categories exist in terms of the battle against segregation, discrimination, and hate violence?


Some political conservatives have seized upon the difficulty of establishing coherent racial categories as an excuse to call for the abolition of all racial classification and record keeping. Such a move, they argue, would save federal dollars and minimize racial/ethnic distinctiveness, consciousness and divisive politics. Yet accurate racial classification and record keeping is essential to systematically track patterns of discrimination and to gather data useful for evaluating policy with respect to racial inequality.

As stressed by the Coalition of Groups opposed to the Proposed Modification of OMB Directive No. 15 in 1995, if we are to reach the deep roots of the legacy of slavery, involuntary servitude, segregation, discrimination and hate violence, we must commit ourselves not merely to undo the words of forced division, but also to undo the consequences of oppressive acts.


In this regard, census data aggregated in its present form has been used:

  • to enforce requirements of the Voting Rights Act;
  • to review State redistricting plans;
  • to collect and present population and population characteristics data, labor force data, education data, and vital and health statistics;
  • to establish and evaluate federal affirmative action plans and evaluate affirmative action and discrimination in the private sector;
  • to monitor the access of minorities to home mortgage loans under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act;
  • to enforce the Equal Credit Opportunity Act;
  • to monitor and enforce desegregation plans in the public schools;
  • to assist minority businesses under the minority business development programs;
  • to monitor and enforce the Fair Housing Act; and
  • to monitor environmental degradation in communities of color.


Finally, the conclusion of the Coalition of Groups opposed to the Proposed Modification of OMB Directive No. 15 in 1995 still stands today:


“Significant improvements have occurred in [the enforcement of civil rights laws] and, for nearly two decades, OMB Directive No.15 has been instrumental in the progress made. However, the evidence is equally clear that much more remains to be done. Racial discrimination is still prevalent in American life, and the residual effects of past discrimination continue to limit the advancement of African-Americans and other racial minorities. The census data has been used for widely published reports and studies which have enhanced the American public's understanding of the obstacles to racial equality that continue to exist in our society. Empirical studies using the data continue to document deep racial inequalities in virtually every major dimension of American social, economic, and political life.


Under these conditions, any effort that threatens to complicate, retard or thwart further progress toward erasing the vestiges of slavery, segregation, and discrimination must be resisted. The proposed multiracial category poses such risks, as it could make the collection of useful data on the effects of societal segregation and discrimination more difficult, if not impossible. We believe that the entire nation would suffer from its effects. For, in today's world, racial discrimination and disadvantage are liabilities that affect us all.”





Prof. Jack Forbes, Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol.17, “The Manipulation of Race Caste and Identity: Classifying Afro-Americans, Native Americans and Red-Black People p.1-51 (1990)

Coalition Statement in Opposition to Revisions of OMB Directive 15 (NAACP, National Urban League, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies)

U.S. Bureau of the Census, Population Division Working Paper No.18, “Results of the 1996 Race and Ethnic Targeted Test,” May 1997

______________________, Population Division Working Paper No.16, “Findings on Questions of Race and Hispanic origin tested in the 1996 National Content Survey,” December 1996

Tucker, et al, “Testing Methods of Collecting Racial and Ethnic Information: Results of the Current Population Survey Supplement on Race and Ethnicity,” BLS Statistical Notes No. 40 (June 1996)

John Strege, “Tiger Woods: the Young Master,” Newsweek, April 28, 1997, pp. 58 ff.

“Challenges of Measuring an Ethnic World: Science, Politics and Reality,” Proceedings of the Joint Canada-United States Conference on the Measurement of Ethnicity, April 1-13, 1992

Blaine Harden, “Baby Alone Lands Parents in New York Jail,” Washington Post, May 14, p. May 14, A1 # # #

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