Multiracial Pride Shows Up In New Census: Mixed heritage now recognized

Lester Dixon, an AC Transit bus driver from Alameda, is black and Filipino. So are his brother and sisters, his 10 children and 10 grandchildren.

But in every U.S. Census until now, they’ve each had to check just one box to define their race for the national head count. For Dixon, that meant denying either his Filipino mother or his African American father — or checking the alienating and uninformative “other” box.

He would break the rules and check both, scratch out “other” and let census officials sort it out. Whatever they did, Dixon knew it could not truly reflect his mixed-race identity.

Census 2000 has changed all that. Controversial new rules let people check one box for each race in their background. Dixon checked black and Filipino, with pride, for himself and four of his children who are still at home in his Alameda apartment.

Today, when the Census Bureau releases national statistics on race and ethnicity, Dixon and his kids will be among those counted for the first time as multiracial.

Although the percentage of people making the same choice is expected to be tiny, Dixon and others in the increasingly multiracial Bay Area say being counted at all is profoundly significant.

“It’s like it’s out in the open. It’s like gays in the old days had to stay in the closet, but now they can . . . flex their muscles,” Dixon said. “It’s important for us to be able to say we’re mixed. It took a long time.”


Allowing people to check more than one box for race has hugely complicated the census process, and 2000 numbers for race and ethnicity will be much harder to compare with past years.

In the 1980 and 1990 counts, people could pick from five racial categories: white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaskan native or other. Being Hispanic is considered an ethnic trait, selected by people of any race, for a total of 10 possible categories.

The 2000 figures will be in 63 racial categories. Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are being counted separately for the first time. The other new categories cover all combinations of two or more races. Adding the choice of Hispanic or non-Hispanic creates 126 possibilities.

The changes delight Dixon and people across the nation who have been lobbying for recognition of mixed race for two decades.

But they have created controversy as well, with civil rights organizations fearing that the multiple categories will dilute the strength of their groups and their fight to end discrimination. During last year’s count, African American leaders in California and elsewhere sponsored ads urging blacks to make sure they got counted and to check only the black box.


Demographers say the concerns are real. The new system “introduces some confusion into the calculations of racial group sizes and who might belong to what group,” said Sonya Tafoya, a mixed-race specialist at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“The main issue is . . . how are these mixed-race tabulations going to be used for the purposes of civil rights?” she said.

Numbers released for just the black population showed that almost 5 percent who checked the black box also picked one other race or more. So, the black population could either be 34.7 million — those who picked only black, or 36. 4 million, which includes everyone who checked the black box. The difference is 1.7 million people, more than expected.

Mixed-race numbers released last week for nine states showed a range from 0. 7 percent in Mississippi to 2.5 percent in New Jersey.

In California, with numbers due out later this month, the percentage is expected to be much higher.

A 1998 census dress rehearsal in Sacramento came up with 5.4 percent of mixed race. Suggesting future trends, the number was much higher — almost 9 percent — for people under 18.

Census numbers on race and ethnicity figure into many calculations involving anti-discrimination laws, voting and dispersal of funds for programs directed at various population groups.

For federal purposes, the Office of Management and Budget has said anyone who is white and one other race will be counted as the other race. But when people are two or more nonwhite races, their numbers will be split.

Dixon and other activists for multiracial identity believe the complications are not only worth it but necessary to change a system that keeps people in boxes where they do not belong.


Stacey Bell of Berkeley, who like Dixon is part of I-Pride, the nation’s oldest group promoting multiracialism, said that for her children, 9-year-old Nico and 12-year-old Vanessa, checking boxes to define their race comes up at school, everywhere they turn, not just in the census. Bell is white and her ex- husband, their father, is black.

“I have told them since they were little that they can identify as biracial or black. It’s really how they feel about who they are,” Bell said. “And I’ve told them that a lot of people will identify them as black no matter what they say.”

Bell said her two children think about it differently, and she expects their ideas to change.

“(Nico’s) heroes are black and his father is black. He knows he has a white mother, but he identifies as black. My daughter really identifies as both,” Bell said.

Whether it is at school or in the census, Bell said, “I think it’s important to have the option to check the multiracial box. People should have the right not to have to choose between their parents.”

Dixon said his brother and sisters have identified as black, but he has always seen himself as Filipino and black and has raised his children that way.

The family celebrates Kwanzaa, but the kids call Dixon “Tatay,” Tagalog for “Daddy.”

He doesn’t know how his siblings filled out the census. But he disagrees with those who tell him that calling himself multiracial is just denying his blackness.

“I think sometimes, especially when it comes to the census, that some blacks kinda feel like you got to be black, like that whole thing about one drop of black blood makes you black from slavery times,” he said. “In the old days, mixed-race people would just identify as black and leave it alone. Even now, people say, ‘Yes, I’m mixed, but I’m black, I’m black first. That is a personal choice.”


Ramona Douglass of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans said encouraging people to acknowledge their multiple backgrounds has other concrete results — in health, for instance.

“Cubbyholing people where they don’t fit is costing lives,” said Douglass, a San Jose resident who works in medical manufacturing. She said a Chicago woman who appeared white died recently after being given an anesthetic not tolerated by people with sickle-cell anemia — a disease specific to blacks. No one thought to test her for it, Douglass said.

The Association of MultiEthnic Americans was a major player in the fight to get multiracial people counted by the census.

“I’m basically Italian, African American and Native American — Lakota — and on the African American side, there’s also Scotch-Irish,” she said. “It makes no sense for me to check one box on the census. I’m a prime example of how it doesn’t work anymore.”

Douglass said more people these days are willing to talk about their multiracialism, especially college students and parents of multiracial children.

That’s a big change from 1989, when she was on the “Oprah” TV show and “people weren’t even sure what multiracial was.”

“It was going to be the ‘tragic mulatto show’ — and it wasn’t, because we were there. We shocked her. She learned there are people of black and Asian mix and Hispanic and Indian mix, and she couldn’t draw a generalization about us.

“We were not denying our blackness or Native American part or anything. We were just saying that the rules you embrace aren’t serving us — and they aren’t serving you either. Just on the basis of one drop, that’s what you are, and everything else is irrelevant?”

Racial categories set up to help fight discrimination created another set of limits, Douglass said. “We are there to take those barriers down.”