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
25 July 1997


Multiracial Categories

I. Introduction

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Commitee, 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. The Need for Accurate Data in the Census

Currently, the federal government uses race data for statistical and administrative purposes, including monitoring civil rights compliance, pursuant to OMB Directive No. 15 ("Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative reporting"). As stressed byt he Coalition of Groups opposed tothe Proposed Modification of OMB Directive No. 15 in 1995, the Directive has been instrumental in the significant progress made in the enforcement of civil rights laws in the last two decades. Census data aggregated in its present form, respecting historically protected categories, 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 monitor discrimination in the private sector and to establish, evaluate and monitor affirmative action plans;
  • 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.

Much remains to be done, however: 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. For those who say our society is "color-blind," saying is not the same as doing. 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 census data has been critical in documenting for the American public the deep racial inequalities which still exist in virtually every dimension of American social, economic, and political life. Under these conditions, any effort that threatens to complicate, retard or thwart the collection of this useful data will meet vigorous resistance from the NAACP.

III. Aspirations of Individuals with Multiple Racial Heritages

The NAACP has great sensitivity to the aspirations of American citizens who claim mixed ancestry, whether it be interracial, biracial, multiracial, or multiethnic. We have always supported the right of individual self-determination and self-identificatin in defining ones's racial makeup. For medical reasons and for reasons of possible discrimination against individuals precisely because they are of diverse racial backgrounds, the NAACP supports the legitimate aspirations of this community for a fair and accurate count of their number.

IV. Interagency Committee Recommendations: "Select One or More," rather than "Separate Multiracial Category"

The Census Bureau and OMB have in recent years come under increasing pressure to meet the aspirations of individuals of multiple racial heritages, who believed the minimum racial categories set forth in OMB Directive No. 15 did not reflect the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of our nation's population. After considerable review, and comments from ethnic diversity of our nation's population. After considerable review, and comments from both the public and from government officials, the Interagency Committee for the Review of the Racial and Ethnic Standards gave its report to the Office of Management and Budget concerning "changes to the standards for the classificatin of federal data on race and ethnicity." The report was published in the Federal Register July 9, 1997.

In Chapter 6 of its Report, the Committee recommended that the method for census respondents to report more than one race should take the form of multiple responses to a single question, i.e., "select one or more" rather than a separate "multiracial" category. The "select one or more" option," according to the Committee, gives the most accurate picture of changing racial and ethnic identification among our citizens without creating discontinuties with historical data collection methods such as those associated with a separate "multiracial" designation. This accords with our earlier testimony, in which we expressed concern that the creation of a separate multiracial classification might disaggregate the apparent numbers of members of historically protected minority groups, diluting benefits to which they are entitled as a protected class under civil rights laws and under the Constitution itself.

We know that a small minority of advocates from the community of persons of multiple racial backgrounds continue to advocate for a multiracial category. However, this is not the position of the larger groups, such as the Associatin of Multi-Ethnic Americans and the Hapa organization, both membership organizations with a broad base. Since our testimony before the Committee in May, we have had very good and productive discussions with these, the most broad-based of the organizations in the multiracial community, and reached agreement that the "select one or more" option best suits all or purposes.

The NAACP, AMEA, and Hapa have achieved a preliminary concensus that, as we are all people of color, all facing discrimination and with similar aspirations, we should wherever possible work together and not in opposition to one another. The proposal by the Interagency Committee of a "select all that apply" approach, rather than a "multiracial category" approach has facilitated that concensus.

In conclusion on this point, let me say that the Interagency Committee cautions that the use of a separate multiracial category, rather than a "select one or more" approach, would create needless confusion. The Committee observes that there is no concensus on the definition of "multiracial" revealed in public comment or state legislation. To give examples, the public seems to confuse "multiracial" with "multiethnic." The states of Georgia, Indiana, and Michigan define "multiracial" as "having parents of different race," but California is considering legislation which defines "multiracial" as "having parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents as different races."

We must take care not to recreate, reinforce or even expand the caste system we are all trying so hard to overcome. Most individuals of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds do not think of themselves as a "new race," but instead wish to celebrate all their heritages, rather than blend them into a new category reminiscent of the "Colored" category of South Africa's sad history of apartheid. For those who treasure each forbear, a "check one or more" option should suffice.

V. Interagency Committee Recommendations: Methods of Data Tabulation

The remaining question now is not the collection of data. In that respect, the "select one or more" option has admirably split the Gordian Knot that separated many of the traditional civil rights organizations from the emerging multiethnic and multiracial groups. As people of color all, we greatly appreciate that.

Now, the question moves further down the pipeline of the data process, to the point of tabulation. What is needed now are protocols to modify existing tabulation procedures to accomodate census responses reporting more than one race. Our concern, obviously, is that such protocols maintain the integrity of civil rights enforcement, such as under the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. In addition, we must bear in mind that multiple-race respondents might encounter discrimination as people of mixed-race, as people visually identified with one or more of the single-race categories, either, or both. Under these circumstances, we believe it is important to be able to count all the acts of discrimination which an individual faces.

There may need to be one uniform tabulation protocol, applied by all federal agencies that use census data. Or each agency may need some minimum level of flexibility to insure that its tabulation of data corresponds closely to its own particular objective. The Interagency Report identifies three possible tabulation methods, based on classification techniques used in the "1996 Race and Ethnic Targeted Test" (RAETT) published by the Census Bureau on May 14, 1997. (The report hints at other approaches, some employing algorithms. None of these seem satisfactory, and we will not discuss them further here.) The three primary methodologies discussed below were presented in the report as "bridges" between existing classification systems and those to be developed. They are:

The single-race approach – this involves assigning single-race responses to a single-race category, and multiple-race responses to a multiple-race category. The issue of how to classify the multiple-race responses, particularly as possible "targets" of discrimination, is postponed to a second-order calculation.

All-inclusive approach – this involves assigning all those who check more than one race into multiple single-race categories. Tiger Woods, as "Caublinasian, Black, Native American and Asian," would be counted four times. Each community of his diverse heritage would have an opportunity to claim him, without an unseemly parent's battle to be resolved, Solomon-like, by offering to cut him into quarters. Each community would also have the ability to protect him from each act or institution of discrimination he might face, whether as a member of a single-race group or as a mixed-race individual.

As the Committee notes, this would result in percentage for each of the four separate racial categories exceeding 100 percent, because multiple-race responses would be counted in each reported racial category. Still, the report continues, "the all-inclusive approach would provide information on the total number of times the racial category had been elected." The NAACP favors this approach, as it would enable us to keep track of discrimination against African-Americans, for example, regardless of whether they were mixed with other races. In most cases, people encounter discrimination based on their appearance, rather than how they describe or identify themselves. It is our view (indeed, our experience) that persons who are genetically even part African are subject to discrimination in our society. We wish to know each time such discrimination occurs, whether in the form of residential segregation, employment discriminaton, discrimination in lending, or obstacles to the right to vote such as at-large districts or gerrymandering. (There is some precedent for the all-inclusive approach: it was possible even in the 1990 Census for Hispanics to be counted as both Hispanic and Black, for example, or as both Hispanic and White or Asian.)

Historical series approach – this approach seeks to fine-tune the tabulation, so that multiple-race respondents are assigned to single-race categories from the outset, based on the likelihood that persons who check off at least one of the historically-protected categories — Black, Asian or Pacific Islander, and Native American — will encounter discrimination. Thus multiple-race respondents who check off "black" and "white," would be classified as "black," because it is as African, not European descent, that they would encounter discrimination. Similarly, a multiple-race respondent who checked "Asian" and "White" would be classified as Asian, because it is as a person of Asian, rather than European descent, that they would encounter discrimination.

This approach meets many of the goals of the all-inclusive approach in keeping track of likely acts of discrimination, while also meeting many of the objectives of the single-race approach in keeping the capitation, or head-count at no more than 100% of the population. The only problem area, and it may be a small one, exists with regard to multiple-race respondents who check off more than one protected category. Tiger Woods, again, is our example. Tiger would not be assigned to white, because he also checked off a protected category. He would not be assigned to Asian, Black, or Native American, because he could be claimed by all three, driving the capitation rate in each single-race category over 100%. Instead, he would stay in a "multiracial" category. This needs to be examined further.

VI. Conclusion

In conclusion, we can say that it may be that the single-race, all-inclusive, and historical series approaches, singly or in combination, might be used by different agencies for different purposes. What is important, for our purposes is that evidence of every act of discrimination be preserved. What would be important from the standpoint of the Census Bureau and federal agencies, is that protocols be adopted that would enable the different agencies to talk to one another and share data in meaningful ways. As a general matter, we favor the all-inclusive approach, and would not favor the single-race approach. The historical series approach is a compromise.

All in all, we appreciate the spirit of compromise and creativity the Interagency Committee has shown, and lok forward to a successful resolution of the remaining questions. Surely, this is a matter we would all like to get past and through, so that we can focus on issues of fair and accurate methods of assuring that the entire population is actually counted. In this regard, the issue of statistical sampling is key. Such modern methods of ensuring an accurate count are necessary in our ever-changing society. Just as we have been innovative in resolving the issue of how our citizens are fairly counted, especially minorities and the poor.

Thank you.


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

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