Multiracial Americans Surge in Number, Voice

Mike Stuckey, MSNBC, May 28, 2008

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At the same time that the nation’s growing diversity and changing social attitudes are helping to swell the ranks of multiracial Americans at 10 times the rate of the white population, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, son of a black man and a white woman, has brought new attention, curiosity and discussion to their experiences.

Obama has faced an endless barrage of questions anchored to issues of race and class, from his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to whether, in his own words, he is “too black” or “not black enough.” As Gut Check America engaged msnbc.com readers in this re-emerging national conversation on race, it became clear that multiracial Americans offered unique perspectives on the topic and that the nation is far from entering a “post-race” era.

[Mike] Gong, 33, is on the leading edge of what he calls the “modern multiracial movement.” A founder of the Mixed Heritage Center, a Web-based resource collection for multiracial Americans, Gong is also vice president and a key spokesman for the Mavin Foundation, a Seattle-based advocacy group for mixed-race people and families. As the educational resources director for the Muckleshoot Indian tribe’s college near Seattle, he is able to tailor programs to Native Americans of mixed heritage. He teaches classes and workshops on the topic and is helping prepare a museum exhibit on the mixed-race experience set to open in Seattle in the fall.

Obama candidacy drives new interest

As Gong’s schedule attests, it’s a busy, exciting time for folks who have worked for years to win understanding and acceptance of the unique path trod by multiracial Americans. “Barack Obama has stepped into the picture now and is shining a floodlight on these issues,” Gong told msnbc.com.

With interracial marriage illegal in 16 states until 1967 and racist sentiments against it remaining to this day in some places, the number of biracial and multiracial Americans is relatively small at less than 5 million. Although it includes a number of high-profile celebrities and athletes like Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey, Derek Jeter, Vin Diesel and Halle Berry, it’s well under 2 percent of the nation’s current 302 million residents.

“There’s kind of a lot of hype that makes people think there’s more, but there aren’t,” said demographer William H. Frey, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

Officially, the number was even a mystery until 2000, the first year the U.S. Census Bureau allowed Americans to say they were of mixed race.

Census counts vary

Even now, there is confusion over various tallies offered by the federal agency. Some surveys, including the 2000 Census, allow respondents to choose “some other race” in addition to every possible combination of all recognized races. That inflated the count of multiracial Americans to 6.8 million.

But the agency’s annual Population Estimate Program, considered its most current breakdown, does not include “some other race” and results in a count of Americans who claim to be of “two or more races.” Based on birth, death and tax records, the figure “really is our official estimate of total population and population by race,” said Census spokesman Robert Burnstein.

The most recent data, released May 1, shows the number of Americans of “two or more races” was 4,856,136 as of last July. The headline, though, is growth. Up from 4,711,932 the previous year, the tally indicates a 3 percent gain, which is 10 times the 0.3 percent growth of the white population in the same period and three times the overall U.S. population growth of about 1 percent. It’s about the same as the growth rates of the Hispanic and Asian populations.

America’s mixed-race population is up 25 percent since it was first calculated in 2000, while the nation’s overall population has grown 7 percent in that time. Although still small in real numbers, the multiracial category is larger that the combined total of Native American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

One thing in common: marginalization

Such statistical exercises bring a warning from Gong.

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“The only thing that bonds us together as a group is the common ways that we’re marginalized,” said Gong, who himself “had a very dynamic experience with race” while growing up. Reared on tribal lands by his paternal Chinese grandfather and Nooksack grandmother, his home life was steeped in Native American culture and tradition. At school, “I was poked and prodded” into a more Asian identity because of his last name.

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Despite their growing numbers, multiracial Americans and their family members say society’s response to them often remains a mixture of ignorance, judgment and downright rudeness.

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Confusion over racial identity a common issue

For many, the confusion of others over their racial identity is the biggest, and thorniest, issue.

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Non-mixed members of multiracial families face their own special struggles. “When you’re in a biracial family, you have a choice to be white or not,” said Mary Semela, a white mom of two biracial sons who is married to a black immigrant from South Africa. Semela, who lives in Ellicott City, Md., said some members of multiracial families can grow so weary of stares and questions when they are with their relatives of different colors that they’ll intentionally go to public places alone at times. “You have that choice just to walk away from your family,” she said, adding that she would not do so herself.

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Despite that, her older son, 20, a scholarship student at Colgate, “feels very anchored as an African-American,” which is in keeping with the view of Semela and many other American parents of biracial black and white children that “as soon as your kids are old enough, they are black people in America, they are not half of anything.”

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New resources, support seen

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A tricky issue for organizers like Gong is apprehension among some leaders of minority communities that a new focus on multiracial identities could lessen their numbers.

“If we look at what was important for communities of color during the civil rights movement, it was solidarity,” he said. “Solidarity served African-Americans and Native Americans very well in the past so now we see a desire to maintain ethnic solidarity still playing out, especially among older folks. We’re worried that we’re going to dilute the voice we have if people identify as being black and white or Native American and black.”

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Inspiration drawn from Obama candidacy

But Americans from multiracial backgrounds and families (some 5 million Americans are married across racial lines and millions more are members of racially blended families) seem universally happy and proud that a biracial man is the front-runner for a major party’s presidential nomination. Over and over again, in e-mail and interviews, regardless of whether they agree with his politics or intend to vote for him, “Gut Check” respondents said they were heartened by Obama’s candidacy.

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Despite the positive feelings from the Obama candidacy and other strides, ambiguity and confusion over racial identity will persist for many mixed-race Americans, said Gong, a fact experienced even in families such as his own that have been multiracial for generations. {snip}

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“Mixed race isn’t post race. It’s not less race. It’s more race,” Gong said. “In order to dialog about mixed race, we need more understanding. It’s not a dialog to forget about issues of race.”

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