«Black/Irish: How do Americans understand their multiracial ancestry? Aaron Gullickson, University of Oregon Ann Morning, New York University ...»
Black/Irish: How do Americans understand their multiracial ancestry?
Aaron Gullickson, University of Oregon
Ann Morning, New York University
Although the United States has been home to a significant multiracial population
since its founding, American scholarly interest in the racial identity of mixed-race people
is a fairly new phenomenon.1 This development is due in large part to the federal
government’s recent change in its official classification system to allow individuals to identify with more than one race (see Office of Management and Budget 1997). With multiple-race statistical data now available, especially after Census 2000, it became clear that millions of Americans would choose to “mark one or more” races when given the opportunity. This observation entailed new relevance for existing social scientific research on identity formation. In particular, Mary Water’s (1990) description of “ethnic options” for white Americans offered a template for thinking about the “racial options” that mixed-race people might confront.2 In this article, we seek to explain patterns of racial self-identification by multiracial people in the United States. Do they prefer to select one race or several to describe themselves, and why? Using census data from 1990 and 2000, we identify a mixed-race population by targeting adults who report having ancestry in more than one racial group. This approach offers several advantages over the more common method of equating the multiracial population with the children of interracial unions. First, it allows us to analyze the self-reported identity of adults rather than the parent-proxied identity of children. Second, this approach captures a multiracial population that is broader and potentially more historical in its understanding of multiraciality than the post-Loving “biracial baby boom” often identified by researchers.
The racial affiliations of mixed-race people offer insights into both macro-level historical trends in racial ideology, and micro-level mechanisms of contemporary social stratification. As we will see, the identity choices that individuals make today continue to be shaped by concepts of race that formed centuries ago: ideas (or their absence) of the properties of races and the nature of hybridity still dictate to a considerable extent how people conceive of their racial membership. Perhaps more important, some observers see in multiracial identity choices a harbinger of the future, either as the vanguard of an imminently miscegenated U.S.A., or as a “swing” faction that might eventually be incorporated in the white population (Gans 1979; Lind 1998; Sanjek 1994; Yancey 2003). On a more prosaic yet no less significant level, the ways that multiracial people Despite such early well-known studies as Park’s (1928) essay on the “marginal man” and Everett Stonequist’s (1961) book ofthe same title, the figure of the mulatto that plays a prominent role in their work was widely understood at the time as essentially a Negro, rather than a person with different identity options from which to choose.
Although, as Kimberly McClain DaCosta (2007) notes, Waters believed that such identity choice did not extend to racial minorities, especially African Americans.
identify themselves reveal a great deal about the continuing impact of class and gender in shaping the opportunity set of race labels that are available to them.
The burgeoning academic literature on multiracial identity, published mostly since 1997 (Thompson 2006), can be roughly divided into two schools or approaches.3 On one hand are historical explorations of the social structures that shaped racial classification systems and practices. F. James Davis’ (1991) monograph on the evolution of mulattoes’ social status is one widely-read example; other researchers have investigated the categorization of American Indian “mixed bloods” (Garroutte 2003;
Nagel 1996; Unrau 1989; Wilson 1992), “red-black” peoples (Forbes 1988; 1993), people of partial Asian ancestry (King-O'Riain 2006; Spickard 1989), and “tripartite racial isolates” of putative African, European, and native American origin (Berry 1963).
Studies that compare the racial classification of different mixed-race groups include Hollinger (2003), Morning (2003), and Wolfe (2001). In addition, Randall Kennedy (2003) and Ian Haney-López (1996) provide comprehensive examinations of the historical role of law in assigning race to racially indeterminate people. Scholars are also beginning to place the contemporary multiracial movement in social and political context (Brunsma 2006; DaCosta 2007; Dalmage 2004; Daniel 2002; DeBose and Winters 2003;
Parker and Song 2001; Spencer 1997; Spencer 1999; 2006; Williams 2006). Together, these works demonstrate how much the historical moment determines whether multiracial people are recognized as such or are automatically grouped in monoracial populations.
They reveal how much particular types of mixed racial ancestry have traditionally been afforded the latitude to select from various possible racial identities.
The second branch of “multiracial studies” (Thompson 2006) focuses on contemporary, individual-level decisions about how to identify one’s self or children in racial terms. Research in this realm has often involved qualitative ethnographic or interview studies (Korgen 1998; Renn 2004; Rockquemore and Brunsma 2002; Twine 1996), with a liberal dose of autobiography (see Root 1992; 1996). With the advent of “mark one or more race” data collection, however, quantitative analyses of racial identification on census forms and large-scale surveys are steadily increasing in number.
The project described here fits most closely in this last body of research, and so we turn now to a more detailed description of its findings and the hypotheses they suggest for this study. However, in interpreting our results we will return to both the sociohistorical and qualitative literature on mixed-race identity for a fuller understanding of the patterns to emerge.
Researchers who want to investigate the identity choices of multiracial people all face a common problem: How to define and measure the mixed-race population to be studied? As Harris and Sim (2002: 625) put it, surveys (including the decennial census) each capture “a multiracial population, not the multiracial population.” Morning (2000) shows how flexible the boundaries might be by calculating that a definition of “multiracial” that included individuals with genealogically-distant mixture would put the See Brunsma (2005) for an alternative description of the field.
share of mixed-race Americans around 40 percent of the total population, instead of the roughly 2 percent figure to emerge from the 2000 census.
To identify mixed-race people in large statistical databases, researchers have primarily used three strategies. The most direct is simply to rely on self-reports, that is, individuals’ responses indicating they are multiracial (whether in response to preset options or through fill-in blanks); see for example Tafoya, Johnson, and Hill’s (2004) description of Census 2000 results. Such data, however, are not appropriate for exploring the varied racial labels that mixed-race people choose, since they include only those who have selected a multiracial identity. In other words, if these responses were to be used to analyze the race options taken by individuals then the analysis would be guilty of sampling on the dependent variable.
Perhaps the most common strategy to date has been to identify multiracial individuals based on the racial identities that their parents report; examples can be found in Brunsma (2005), Chew, Eggebeen, and Uhlenberg (1989), Eschbach (1995), Herman (2004), Qian (2004), Roth (2005), Saenz, Hwang, Aguirre, and Anderson (1995), and Xie and Goyette (1997). The advantage of this approach is that it seems to be fairly comprehensive; assuming that parental race is reasonably accurately reported in large data collection efforts like the census or the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, this method should include most biracial children without undue bias. However, even if this assumption holds, there are still three notable drawbacks to face. First, parental information is frequently only recorded for parents within the child’s household.
Therefore, biracial children living in single parent and stepparent families are excluded from analysis. Second, information on parental race is usually gathered only for minors, so such analyses are normally limited to children younger than 18 years of age. As a result, they often do not report their race themselves, but rather it is filled in by their parents. The resulting data then does not represent individuals’ racial self-identification, but rather, the labeling choices their parents make on their behalf. While such information is certainly valuable as an indicator of the broad understandings of race that obtain in the United States, it tells us more about older generations than it does about younger ones, and it says nothing about the identification that mixed-race individuals choose for themselves.
The final shortcoming to this approach, at least in our view, is that it limits the definition of “multiracial” to first-generation children of interracial couples, also known as “biracial” offspring. This reduction, while embraced by some,4 reinforces the erroneous notion that multiraciality is a new, post-Loving phenomenon in the United States (Spencer 2006).5 More importantly for the attempts of scholars to use attitudes toward multiracial ancestry as a window onto broader race thinking, it eliminates from study a crucial element of analysis: the major role that historical period plays in shaping the range of racial identities—if any—from which people feel they can choose.
See Nobles (2000) for discussion of the multiracial movement’s emphasis on biracial people.
Loving v. Virginia was the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down all state laws prohibiting interracial marriage (Davis 1991).
The third approach for identifying multiracial people is really a loose collection of strategies that rely on comparing multiple responses to the race question in different contexts. For example, Harris and Sim (2002) take advantage of the fact that the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (“Add Health”) asked respondents for their race in different ways (permitting multiple responses and forcing single-race choices) and contexts (asking at home and at school), and recorded parental race as well.
As a result, students who reported one race at home and another at school might be considered multiracial. Hitlin, Brown, and Elder (2006) also use Add Health data, but they search for race-reporting inconsistencies over time by comparing the Wave 1 (1994results to those of Wave 3 (2001-02). Campbell (2007) uses the 1995 Current Population Survey supplement on Race and Ethnicity that queried respondents about multiple races after asking the standard single race question.
This method has the appeal of relying on individual’s self-reports, rather than their racial identification by others. In the case of relying upon discrepancies in reporting, however, it is somewhat unclear whether response inconsistency can truly be classified as a respondent selecting a multiracial identification, as opposed to a vacillation between two competing single-race identifications. Furthermore, given the small size of many multiracial populations, the “true” population of interest could easily be swamped by a small amount of reporting error. Comparing two different race questions on the same instrument with different wording, as in Campbell (2007) avoids these problems, but as we note below, the very fact that both questions use “race” as the prompt still limits the multiracial population to one in which the relevant attachment to an ancestral group is strong enough for it to become a racial identity.
The method that we use to identify a multiracial population avoids many of the drawbacks described above. Based on the work of Goldstein and Morning (2000),6 we turn to adults’ self-reported ancestry for evidence of multiracial heritage, regardless of generation. Specifically, we use U.S. census data to identify individuals who reported ancestral descent from two or more groups that are traditionally considered racially distinct. We believe that ancestry responses offer a special advantage over methods that ultimately rely on racial identification. Race is a basic cognitive dimension of social interaction in the United States that individuals use to interpret and organize their social world. Ancestry, on the other hand, is a far more fluid concept that has far less salience in daily life. Furthermore, the routinized nature of race reporting for most Americans often yields preset, single-race answers, rather than detailed descriptions of one’s origins.
Due to its open-ended nature and rarity, the ancestry question is more likely to generate spontaneous and novel responses.
Some might argue that the lack of salience and routinization weakens the value of the ancestry question as a form of self-identification. We would argue, rather, that the ancestry question provides important information on individuals’ self-identification that is not captured when they are forced into highly salient, pre-determined categories. Given the overlap in the way concepts such as race, ancestry, origins, and heritage are understood in the United States, ancestral identity typically carries with it some form of See also Eschbach, Supple, and Snipp (1998) and Lieberson and Waters (1988).
implicit racial identification. By probing these responses for a multiracial ancestry that is distinct from the more salient and routinized race question itself, we are able to address several of the shortcomings of other methods.
First, unlike studies that work directly with self-reported race, we have access to adults’ self-reported identity information without having to limit our target group to those who explicitly select a mixed-race label, avoiding the problem of “selecting on the dependent variable.” Second, unlike studies of biracial children, we are able to identify an adult multiracial population. By restricting this population to heads of household, we can limit our analysis to individuals who are likely to be self-reporting, rather than relying on the proxy identification of parents or other relatives.