Black or Biracial? Census Forces a Choice for Some

Jesse Washington, Buffalo News, April 19, 2010

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Friday was the deadline to mail 2010 census forms. Although the results are expected to show an increase in the number of multiracial people, some African-Americans with one white parent are deciding to simply “stay black.”

This is only the second census to allow people to identify themselves by more than one race. About 7 million people, or 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, chose that option in 2000.

It’s impossible to know how many of the 35 million people counted as “black alone” in 2000 have a white parent. But it’s clear that the decision to check one box–or more–on the census is often steeped in history, culture, pride and mentality.

Exhibit A is President Barack Obama. He declined to check the box for “white” on his census form, despite his mother’s well-known whiteness.

Obama offered no explanation, but Leila McDowell has an idea.

“Put a hoodie on him and have him walk down an alley, and see how biracial he is then,” said McDowell, vice president of communications for the NAACP.

“Being black in this country is a political construct,” she said. “Even though my father is white and I have half his genes, when I apply for a loan, when I walk into the car lot, when I apply for a job, they don’t see me as half white, they see me as black. If you have any identifying characteristics, you’re black.”

There is evidence, though, that while some may be resistant to the idea of identifying as multiracial, white attitudes are moving in that direction. In a January poll by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of white people said Obama is “mixed race” and 24 percent said he is black. In contrast, 55 percent of black people said Obama is black and 34 percent said he is mixed.

This also may represent a new twist on the “one drop” concept, which for centuries held that even one black ancestor made a person black. Now a brown-skinned man is president, and for many white people, one white parent means you are NOT black.

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Most experts say there is very little genetic difference between people of different races–as little as 1 percent. “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one,” goes a much-repeated quote from J. Craig Venter, who led one of the first projects to decipher the entire human genome.

That’s one reason why the American racial system is “facing taxonomical meltdown,” said Nell Painter, a Princeton University history professor and author of “The History of White People.”

“The complications of the classification system, the resistance that people are mounting, the weight of immigration and marriage mixing, young people are checking more than one box,” Painter said. “The system might just all fall away.”

Which would leave blackness to be defined person by person, according to how they think, the way they look at the world–blackness as a state of mind.

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Jesse Washington covers race for The Associated Press. He has one white parent and one black, and did not check “white” on the census.

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