The term biracial refers to a person with parents of two different “races.” However, the more inclusive term multiracial is increasingly being used instead. Biracial and multiracial Americans can come from any combination of racial backgrounds. While all multiracial Americans have faced, and continue to deal with, some degree of discrimination, those with both black and white parentage have encountered the most bias and negative treatment in the United States. Although interracial sexual relationships have existed throughout the history of the nation, the number, acceptance of, and recognition of these unions and the multiracial offspring they produce have changed dramatically over the years. The fluctuating attitudes towards interracial relationships, and the changing notions of how to define racial groups, are evident in the way multiracial Americans have been counted as part of the U.S. population. Few Americans who lived in the 1800s would recognize the racial demarcations taken for granted in the twenty-first century.
The racial categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau are based on socially determinedide as of race, underscoring the fact that race is a social construction rather than a biologically based reality. Moreover, not all respondents share the same definitions of race assumed by the Census Bureau. Different societies have different understandings of race. Many Latino Americans, for example, do not identify themselves in racial terms in the manner that Census officials assume they will. The fact that race is a social creation is made evident by the way the definitions and uses of racial groupings have changed throughout the history of the U.S. Census. For example, the Censuses of 1790 through 1820 the categories “Free white males and females,” “Slaves,” and “All other free persons, except Indians, not taxed.” The 1820 Census added “foreigners not naturalized” and the 1830 census dropped “all other free persons, except Indians not taxed.” The 1850 Census, the first to include options for black-white multiracial Americans, had the following racial categories: “White,” “Free Black,” “Free Mulatto,” “Slave Black,” and “Slave Mulatto.” With the 1870 Census (after the end of slavery), “Slave Black” and “Slave Mulatto” were removed and “Indian” and “Chinese” were added. “Japanese” became a category in 1880. The term “Mulatto” was used by the Census Bureau to enumerate all persons having any trace of black heritage. Black-white race mixing was tallied in even more detail in the Census of 1890, when “Quadroon” (one-quarter black) and “Octoroon” (from any trace to one-eighth black) were added. However, this level of detail proved too complicated, and these designations were not included on the 1900 Census.
An “other” category was added in 1910. By 1930, black-white multiracial categories were dropped, but other Asian groups were added, along with a “Mexican” category. The “Mexican” category was deleted in 1940, and different Asian groups were added through the 2000 Census. On the 2000 Census, respondents were asked to answer whether they were “Hispanic or Latino” or “Not Hispanic or Latino,” and to then choose one or more of the following racial categories:
- Black, African American, or Negro
- American Indian or Alaska Native
- Asian Indian
- Other Asian
- Native Hawaiian
- Guamanian or Chamorro
- Other Pacific Islander
- Some other race
Clearly, understandings of race and the racial choices deemed necessary on the U.S. Census have changed in relation to the political power of the different racial groups in the U.S., the discrimination they face, and the changing demographic characteristics of the nation’s population.
The deletion of the “Mulatto” category after the 1920 Census was directly related to the increased separation of whites and blacks after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Discrimination against black Americans gained legal support with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which established the legality of “separate but equal” public facilities for blacks and whites. As the distinctions among races became accepted social and legal practice, the need to distinguish clearly between black and white Americans resulted in the “one-drop rule,” by which any American with any trace of black ancestry was deemed black. Therefore, the U.S. Census no longer carried any terms connoting mixed black-white races. All those who had a “drop” of black “blood” were considered black.
The civil rights movement and the abolishment of Jim Crow legislation that accompanied civil rights legislation in the 1960s did not lead to the immediate demise of the one-drop rule. However, it did create conditions in U.S. society that began to challenge and undermine the rule in the decades to follow. Civil rights legislation and affirmative action policies enabled black Americans to gain more social and economic power, as well as leading to increased interaction among racial groups. The identity movements that followed the civil rights movement (e.g., the black liberation movement, the women’s movement, the lesbian and gay movements) led, in turn, to the formation of a multicultural movement. Starting in the 1970s, Americans began to seek out, embrace, and celebrate their various racial and ethnic roots.
The Immigration Act of 1965 was passed at the height of the civil rights movement, amid pressure to overturn legalized racial discrimination in the United States. It abolished national quotas (replacing them with quotas for the Eastern and Western Hemispheres) and did much to increase immigration and alter the racial makeup of the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the foreign-born population rose from 4.7 percent in 1970 to 11.7 percent in 2003. Among those U.S. residents who were born outside the United States in 2003, 53.3 percent were from Latin America, 25 percent were from Asia, 13.7 percent were from Europe, and 8 percent were from other areas of the globe. These different racial groups were an important impetus for the rise and success of the multicultural movement in the United States. While intergroup tensions have grown as more immigrants enter the United States, the influx of diverse groups has also led to larger numbers of interracial marriages and multiracial offspring.
Before racial intermarriage was legalized throughout the United States with the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, it was very rare and, in fact, was still against the law in sixteen states as of 2007. Since the Loving decision in 1967, the number of interracial relationships and marriages has increased dramatically, and there has been a growing acceptance and appreciation of all racial backgrounds, leading to a strong multiracial community. A “biracial baby boom” has taken place over the decades since the Supreme Court struck down laws against inter-racial marriage. Between 1970 and 2000, the racial inter-marriage rate grew from less than 1 percent to 5 percent of all marriages. According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 1970, only 0.4 percent of married whites were in interracial marriages. In 2000, 3 percent of married whites were married to a person of color. Similarly, the percentage of blacks married to nonblacks moved from 1 percent to 7 percent. In 2006, 16 percent of married Asian Americans in the United States were married to non-Asians and approximately one in four Hispanics/Latinos marry a non-Hispanic/Latino (usually a white person).
In 2000, when people were allowed to choose more than one race on the U.S. Census for the first time, 2.4 percent of the population did so. Moreover, 4 percent of Americans under the age of eighteen indicated a biracial identity. An additional 5.5 percent said they were some “other” race than those listed on the Census form. As American culture has embraced multiculturalism and experienced the biracial baby boom, support groups for inter-racial couples and their offspring have been formed. In addition, an increasing social acceptance has enabled biracial persons to proclaim both sides of their racial background.
Multiracial organizations have led large-scale efforts for the establishment of a multiracial category on official forms of racial demarcation. Many members of interracial unions, and many of the offspring of such unions, have organized effectively to advocate for a “Multiracial” category on the U.S. Census form. Organizations such as Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) maintain that a multiracial designation will make people of mixed racial heritage visible, allow them to acknowledge all parts of their racial heritage, and give them the rights and benefits that other racial minority groups enjoy. For example, groups can only be protected from racial discrimination if the government tracks people by racial category. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine the levels of discrimination facing multiracial Americans because of their racial background if there is not an officially designated multiracial category. Members of these organizations have proposed the addition of a multiracial category, with subheadings consisting of all the monoracial categories included on the U.S. Census. Respondents of more than one race would check off “Multi-racial” and then check off the racial subcategories that apply to them. This method of racial demarcation allows mixed-racial persons to have a universal racial label—multiracial— while recognizing their unique racial backgrounds.
On the other hand, racial/ethnic advocacy groups such as the Asian American Justice Center (formerly the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have worked to prevent the establishment of a multiracial category. They note that legislative districting and the allocation of federal education and health-care dollars are based on population numbers. They fear that the establishment of a multiracial category will result in their losing members of their own racial/ethnic groupings to the new category, thereby reducing their own political power and allocation of resources.
The decision to allow people to choose more than one racial box on the 2000 Census was a compromise that enabled respondents to check off as many boxes as they wished, while also allowing officials to group the statistics in ways that satisfy the racial/ethnic advocacy groups that fear a multiracial category will siphon their power. The decision to forego a separate multiracial box but allow people to check off more than one race allows statisticians to count all those who check off two racial groups in the group with the lowest number of respondents. For example, someone who checked off both Black/African American and White would be counted as Black/African American when population figures are determined.
On the other hand, allowing people to check off more than one box also makes it possible to track how many people identify with more than one racial grouping. On the 2000 Census, when people were given the opportunity to identify with more than one race for the first time, 2.4 percent of all Americans did so. Among those who checked off Black/African American, 4.5 percent also checked off another race. While this figure is not necessarily an accurate picture of how many Americans with both a black and a nonblack parent identify as multiracial, it does indicate that the “one drop rule” is beginning to lose its power. The relative youth of the biracial population provides further evidence of this trend. In 2000, the median age of all U.S. residents was thirty-five but the median age of those who checked off both White and Black/African American was just ten.
While the word multiracial is replacing the term biracial, 93 percent of people who checked off more than one race on the 2000 Census checked off only two races. It is also important to remember that the U.S. Census considers Hispanic/Latino an ethnic, rather than a racial, category. Therefore, those Latino Americans categorized as being from “more than one race” checked off “Hispanic or Latino” plus two or more racial groups. The Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander population was the racial group with the highest number of respondents (54.4 percent) checking off two or more races on the 2000 U.S. Census. They were followed by American Indian and Alaska Native (39.9 percent), Asian (13.9 percent), black or African American (4.8 percent) and White (2.5 percent). However, because two-thirds of Americans are white, most interracial unions consist of a white person and a person of color. Thus, even though white people are least likely to marry outside of their racial group, most biracial Americans have a white parent.
Most biracial Americans live in states with relatively high levels of diversity and metropolitan centers. According to the 2000 Census, 40 percent of biracial persons reside in the West, 27 percent in the South, 18 percent in the Northeast, and 15 percent in the Midwest. The state with the highest percentage of multiracial persons is Hawaii, with 21 percent. In descending order, the other states with above-average biracial populations are Alaska, California, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas. Each of these states has a biracial population greater than the 2.4 percent national average.
The literature on biracial Americans before the biracial baby boom that followed the civil rights era was primarily negative, focusing on the problems that biracial Americans might have fitting into a monoracial society. The sociologist Robert Park notes that in this era the biracial individual was often referred to as “marginal,” condemned to live as a “stranger” in “two worlds.” Interracial couples who announced plans to marry were automatically asked “But what about the children?” This question is indicative of the difficulty biracial children faced in a racist society with a one-drop rule.
Since then, however, social science research and popular writing on the topic of biracial Americans has been much more positive. Since the 1990s, most published work on biracial Americans has stressed their ability to bridge racial divides and see both sides of racial issues, indicating an increasing acceptance of multiracial identity in the United States. The question “But what about the children?” has a very positive answer in the early twenty-first century.
The popularity of biracial artistic stars such as the singer Mariah Carey and the mixed-race golfer Tiger Woods has also done much to publicize the benefits of a multiracial background. As their numbers and presence grow, more and more biracial Americans are questioning the traditional racial hierarchy in the United States and embracing all sides of their racial heritage. This transformation from the one-drop rule to a society in which all aspects of racial heritage are acknowledged and appreciated reveals how definitions of race are continually constructed and reconstructed. Future U.S. Census racial categories will certainly change as the understanding of race continues to evolve and U.S. society becomes more multiracial.
Jones, Nicholas A., and Amy Symens Smith. 2001. “The Two or More Races Population: 2000.” In Census 2000 Brief. Available from http://www.census.gov.
Korgen, Kathleen Odell. 1998. From Black to Biracial: Transforming Racial Identity among Americans. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Lee, Sharon M., and Barry Edmonston. 2005. “New Marriages, New Families: U.S. Racial and Hispanic Intermarriage.” Population Bulletin 60 (2). Available from http://www.cs.princeton.edu/chazelle/politics/bib/newmarriages05.pdf.
Rockquemore, Kerry Ann, and David L. Brunsma. 2002. Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Rockquemore, Kerry Ann, and Tracey Laszloffy. 2005. Raising Biracial Children. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Rodriguez, Clara E. 2000. Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. New York: New York University Press.
U.S. Census Bureau. 2001. “Population by Race and Hispanic or Latino Origin for the United States: 1990 and 2000.” Available from http://www.census.gov.