The President, the Census and the Multiracial “Community”

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What is the connection between Obama, the 2010 U.S. Census and multiracials? Not as much as some may think. While it is tempting to look to Obama as a mixed race icon and to see the Census as publicly acknowledging a multiracial “community,” we may need to rethink these ideas.

The 2010 Census data is being released a few states at a time but already the data suggests a large increase in those identifying as “more than one race.” The lowest increase so far is New Jersey (2.7% reporting as more than one race, an increase of 12.4%) while the highest is Mississippi (1.4% reporting, an increase of 70.4%). Many states fall in the middle, though still on the high end such as Vermont (1.7% and 46.6%) and Virginia (2.9% and 63.1%). What does this data tell us? First, all states that have been released so far have shown an increase in those who identify as more than one race. Second, even with this increase, the actual percentage of people who identify as more than one race is still a relatively small percentage of the population.

Yet, multiracials are a growing and highly visible population. Multiracials, specifically the mixed race Millennials, are everywhere asserting their right to check more than one box and have all their heritages respected, counted and acknowledged. Public discussions of multiracial identity demonstrate the importance of this group to current debates about race in the United States. Whether in popular culture such as Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry’s daughter or in the world of academia such as the recent New York Times article exploring multiracial students, we seem determined to understand multiracial identities and what they mean about race relations in the United States. In these debates, President Obama is frequently evoked as an icon of multiraciality. However, on the 2010 Census, he chose to identify as “Black” and only “Black.” Multiracial discomfort with Obama’s choice seems to speak less about Obama and his views of race (either public or private) and more about multiracials’ desire for public acknowledgement of private identities. Is this how we should develop and create our identities? Is self-affirmation driven by external forces or internal comfort and wholeness?

Had Obama checked more than one box, would there be a trickle-down effect to all other multiracials? Would multiracials immediately be seen as a “real” community, or at least a real alternative to single-race identifications? We seem to believe that public acknowledgement of multiracial identities is a good thing. At least, it appears to be a fair thing. People should be allowed to have their identities (no matter how complex) acknowledged publicly. To do otherwise is to play into our history of segregation and the one-drop rule. However, some multiracials have gone so far as to imply that by checking only one box, Obama (and any other mixed race person who made a similar choice) was ignoring their families and complete histories.

But is this a fair criticism? Is this even what the census is meant to measure? As Obama has stated, "I self-identify as African-American -- that's how I'm treated, and that's how I'm viewed. I'm proud of it." The U.S. Census asks for responses that reflect how we view ourselves and asks us to select the racial category with which we most identify. Perhaps even more importantly, the U.S. Census is not meant to measure one’s comfort with racial categories or to create racial communities. What it does do is use racial data in order to measure discrimination and provide services.

The need for Obama as an icon appears to expose a vulnerability in a population that still feels marginalized. Despite media attention, despite a growing body of scholarship, despite novels and films depicting multiracial experiences, multiracials as a community (as we think of other racial communities) is still fragile and fragmented. For many reasons this makes sense. Multiracial people are not all multiracial in the same way and do not experience multiraciality in the same way. Perhaps this is a lesson we can learn from the 2010 Census and the debates over Obama’s choice – that multiracial people must look inward for self-affirmation. And for each multiracial person, the answer to the question “What are you?” may be unique.