Upgrading America's Conversations on Race:
The Multi-Race Option for Census 2000

By Ramona E. Douglass,
Director of Media & Public Relations, AMEA, Inc.
& Member of U.S. Department of Commerce's 2000 Census Advisory Committee
June, 2000

In October 1997, the U.S. federal government's Office of Management and Budget made an historical decision to amend its current statistical standards for the collection of racial and ethnic data. OMB Statistical Directive 15 was revised to allow for the acknowledgement and tabulation of people who choose to identify with more than one race. Prior to this time, national public policy guidelines assumed, for statistical purposes, single-race, mutually exclusive identification of only four distinct racial groups, and two ethnic categories:

	     American Indian/Alaskan Native
	     Asian/Pacific Islander

	     Hispanic origin
	     Not of Hispanic origin

In a Federal Register Notice, dated October 30, 1997, it was announced that new guidance would be given for agencies that collect or use aggregate data on race. The revised standards for such collection will require that agencies offer individuals the option to select one or more races when reporting information on race in federal data collection. There are now five minimum race categories: American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian, Black/African American, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and White. There are also two minimum categories for ethnicity: Hispanic or Latino, and Not Hispanic or Latino. Hispanics and Latinos can be of any race. Finally, for purposes of the Census, the category "Some Other Race" has been added with a write in area intended to capture such responses as Creole or Mestizo. Those who were intent on a separate multiracial category may also choose to use that space to affirm a distinct multiracial identity. What is most important, is that the Census 2000, conducted in April of this year, a very visible and inclusive public event, was the first nationwide implementation of these federal revised standards. Opting for a "check one or more" race format over the traditional single-race, "check one only" box format on the Race & Ethnic Question, represents a long overdue victory for those who have stood for, lobbied, or otherwise endorsed the acknowledgement, celebration and respect for human diversity. What has been dismantled by this shift in public policy is the mythical notion that race is fixed rather than fluid, or that any governmental agency's perception of racial identity takes priority over an individual's right to self-identify. The American people will finally be able to display a full range of single and multiple race responses reflecting the truly diverse fabric of our current and historical roots.

Allowing multiple race responses on the 2000 Census has opened the door to more accurate and complete statistical information for purposes of medical research, drug protocol development and improved patient care. The AMA (American Medical Association) was one of many prominent national organizations to endorse the added benefit of more detailed racial/ethnic data. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other biomedical/research entities that specialize in tracking diseases based on genetic frequency will have an opportunity to more accurately assess a population which is rapidly blending as we enter the 21st century. According to estimates recently released by Princeton University's Office of Population Research, in a study on the multiracial population of the U.S., somewhere between 3.1-6% of the U.S. population is likely to identify with more than one race.

Under the new Census format, there are 63 possible categories of race consisting of the following:

  1. Total count of number of persons who chose only one of six categories below:
    1. American Indian and Alaskan Native
    2. Asian
    3. Black or African American
    4. Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander
    5. White
    6. Some other race
  2. The 57 combinations of two or more of these categories for those respondents that chose "two or more categories."

Although there is ongoing debate as to what impact tabulating multiple race and single race responses will have on monitoring and enforcing civil rights laws, guidelines have already been established by an OMB interagency group to ensure that the spirit and effectiveness of these laws will not be compromised. These guidelines provide interagency consistency in the enforcement of civil rights laws that offer protection for those who have historically experienced discrimination based on their race, color, religion or ethnic origin . Guidance for the aggregation and allocation of multiple race responses for purposes of monitoring compliance to the Voting Rights Act, or the provisions under Public Law 94-171 (Redistricting), do not preclude the use of more detailed data if desired or required. And none of the methods used to tabulate multiple race responses involve double counting, or fractional representation of individuals, or the arbitrary allocation of any response to one minority group over another. In some presentations, the 57 combinations of two or more races may be collapsed into a category entitled "Two or More Races" which, for purposes of protecting confidentiality and maintaining statistical relevance, will result in "seven mutually exclusive and exhaustive racial categories":

American Indian and Alaskan Native only; Asian only; Black or African American only; Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders only; White only; Some Other Race only; and Two or More Races. The minimum categories for ethnicity will be Hispanic or Latino, and Not Hispanic or Latino. This approach will tally all respondents and represent 100% of the total population.

What is imperative in future discussions on racial and ethnic identification/tabulation is our ability to address what will promote the highest good; rather than continue to perpetuate our basic fears and preconceived notions on race. What will benefit all communities involved and what will forward this nation in the best utilization of all its resources, expertise and human creativity? These are the kinds of questions that must be answered if we are ever to upgrade our conversations and self-expressions of race in America.