When the U.S. Census Bureau set out to count everyone in the United States 25 years ago, there were 15 options to choose from in the category of race. For good measure, the census included one more: “other.”
“It was quite a bit more inclusive than the first census in 1790, when the choices were free white males, free white females, all other free people, and slaves,” says Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center.
That 1790 census didn’t fully capture the diversity of our nascent nation—Native Americans were notably absent—but neither did the census taken two centuries later in 1990, even with the inclusion of “other.” Another decade would pass before the government would take note of the ever-evolving complexion of the United States. In 2000, mixed-race Americans were allowed for the first time to check more than one box to better capture their heritage. But the data still begged for a deeper dive.
“The whole ethnic and racial fabric of the population is changing, and we haven’t found a good way to measure mixed-race Americans,” Parker says. “We wanted to explore how to do that and to ask adults with a mixed-racial background what their experience was like and how it might be different from that of other racial groups.”
So with census data from 2000 and 2010 in hand, the center’s researchers conducted a survey, focus groups, and individual interviews to capture the experiences and perspectives of the growing number of people whose background is of more than one race. The center’s report, Multiracial in America, was released in June and offers a new view of a nation undergoing significant demographic change—and what that portends politically and culturally in the coming decades.
“The emergence of this multiracial group raises questions about what race means in America,” Parker explains. “We wondered how a growing multiracial population might change—or not change—the black-white racial divide that’s been so relevant in terms of our national history, and continues to be now.”
It wasn’t until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws banning interracial marriage. That accounts, in part, for the fact that the median age of multiracial Americans is 19, half the median age of single-race Americans.
The 2010 census reported that 2.1 percent of U.S. adults are multiracial and projected that the multiracial population will triple by 2060. The Pew report estimated that 6.9 percent of today’s adults have a multiracial background. Pew’s expanded definition took into account not only the races of respondents but of their parents and grandparents, which the census does not do.
“The reason I think this study was so important was that we were able get a big enough sample to look at subgroups within the multiracial population,” Parker says. “So we could look at mixed-race Americans who were black and white, and mixed-race Americans who were white and Asian, and mixed-race Americans who were white and American Indian.”
The survey took in 1,555 multiracial adults. In addition, focus group discussions and in depth interviews helped add context beyond the data to paint a portrait of multiracial American life.
“In the past I feel like, in the United States in particular, perhaps that it was sort of looked down upon to be mixed race, that there was more value to being sort of just white or just black or just Asian or just Latino,” Mycal, a black and white man, told the researchers.
But several participants also saw that changing. “I think as we see more and more people of different racial backgrounds getting married, then you’re only likely to see this become more common,” said David, an Asian and white man. “As each milestone gets crossed off and doors open, I think it’s going to be easier.”
The interviews and survey research revealed that multiracial individuals are as diverse in their perspectives and opinions as virtually any other racial segment of the population.
Most people with a white and black background say they have more in common with blacks than whites and are more likely to feel accepted by blacks.
The majority of those with a white and Asian background feel they have more in common with whites and are more likely to say they feel accepted by whites than by Asians.
Most multiracial American Indians, whether white or black, say they have stronger ties to the white or black communities than they do to American Indians.
“You can’t really paint this group with a broad brush,” Parker says. “The experiences and attitudes an individual has really differ according to the races that make up his or her background. For example, mixed-race people who have some African-American origin in their background have a much different experience than mixed-race people who are white and Asian, in terms of discrimination or interactions with the police.”
Only about a third of those surveyed said they felt a great deal in common with other adults who share their racial background. Although about 60 percent expressed pride in their multiracial identity, about the same percentage said they didn’t see themselves as “mixed race or multiracial.”
“So even the labels that we apply to people, they don’t necessarily apply to themselves,” Parker says. “That varied across different groups, too, with the white-Native American adults much less likely to consider themselves mixed race than white and black or white and Asian adults.”
And 21 percent said they felt pressured—by family, friends or “society in general”—to identify as a single race.
“Sometimes I identify as white because it’s easy,” Amy, who is American Indian and white, told the researchers. “Sometimes I just get tired of explaining, like, who I am—and, like, sometimes I just don’t care to.”
Parker says some of those interviewed talked of a “coming of age” moment when people began to identify more strongly with one of the races in their makeup.
“There were different factors that influenced people. But the takeaway there was that race is fluid and that people in different settings or different stages of life might identify themselves differently,” she says.
The diversity of viewpoints continued when Pew delved into politics with multiracial people. Party leanings reflected the sentiments of the overall U.S. population, with 57 percent of multiracial people siding with Democrats. But those with a black background were overwhelmingly Democratic, as were the majority with an Asian heritage. Among those who were white and American Indian, 53 percent said they favored the Republican Party.
“That could have implications going forward as this population continues to grow” Parker says. “It will be interesting to see where they fall along party lines.”
If there was a general frustration among multiracial people, it was over the demand that they check boxes on race on forms at all.
“Whether it was registering for school or filling out a job application, it was a common experience for a lot of people,” Parker says. “I think going forward, as this population grows, there probably will be more conversation and pressure for people who measure race to take this frustration into consideration. It’s a very dynamic field of measurement right now, which makes it interesting, and there are important policy implications to all of it.”
Ashley Halsey III has been a writer and editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post.
Hear more multiracial voices and explore an interactive timeline on how census race categories have changed over the past two centuries at pewresearch.org/multiracial.