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Identifying with Multiple Races: A Social Movement that Succeeded but Failed?

Publication Abstract

Download PDF versionFarley, Reynolds. 2001. "Identifying with Multiple Races: A Social Movement that Succeeded but Failed?" PSC Research Report No. 01-491. December 2001.

 Prior to the 1960s, civil rights organizations sought to minimize the collecting of racial information since such data were often employed to deny opportunities to minorities. By 1970, federal agencies and courts frequently used racial information to enforce civil rights laws by ensuring the minorities were appropriately represented in jobs or in schools and that equitable electoral districts were drawn. In the 1970s, advocacy groups struggled over racial definitions. In 1977, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defined official races and mandated the gathering of data about them. A decade later a small but highly effective multiracial movement emerged. They contended that many Americans come from several racial backgrounds and should be permitted to identify with a multiracial category. OMB, in 1997, altered the federal regulations, recognized five major races and gave everyone the option to identify with as many races as the wish.
 The Census of 2000 adopted the principle that persons could identify with more than one race. About 2.4 percent - or one in 40 - did so. Approximately one-third of these were multiracial because they wrote a Spanish-term for their second race. That is, 1.6 percent of the population or 4.5 million marked two or more of the five major races defined by OMB. White/Other, and White/Indian were the only multiracial groups marked by one million or more. 
 These innovative multiracial data have not provoked litigation nor bitter controversies as legislatures analyzed census information to reapportion electoral districts. Before to the enumeration, advocacy groups strongly endorsed the use of a multiracial category but they have not highlighted this issue now that data are becoming available from the Census. The multiracial movement succeeded in fundamentally changing the way the government collects racial data but, thus far, there are no great changes in outcomes nor are there prominent pending lawsuit focused on the rights of multiracial.

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