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For a 'Multiracial' Identity

HOW should the daughter of a black mother and a Hispanic father be classified? What about the son of a white man and a Japanese woman? In this country, demographics can be political destiny. Because the benefits of affirmative action and countless government programs are often distributed on the basis of group representation, the definition of who belongs to which group is far from trivial.

At present, the US Census Bureau divides all humanity into six racial and ethnic categories, none of which is "multiracial." So the children described above must select one parent's heritage over the other's. This arrangement, bizarrely enough, is the result of computer punch cards. Decades ago, when the federal government began keeping statistics on different racial and ethnic groups, the information was keyed onto punched cards 12 holes wide. Because everyone is either male or female, there was a maximum of six racial or ethnic categories.

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Since then, the federal government has pigeonholed Americans into six categories: Native American; Asian or Pacific Islander; Black, not of Hispanic origin; Hispanic; White, not of Hispanic origin; and Other.

That may be changing. This summer, the Census Bureau will mail to 90,000 households around the US a survey called the Race and Ethnic Targeted Test. It is designed to evaluate several proposed changes to the Census 2000 form. The most important is the possible addition of a multiracial category.

The only organized opposition to the multiracial option comes from black groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP knows that estimates of the percentage of blacks with mixed racial heritage range as high as 70 percent or more. It worries that many blacks will identify themselves as multiracial. If so, the decrease in the black group's population could reduce its share of a wide range of benefits based on numbers, such as political districting under the Voting Rights Act.

The NAACP's stance seems to be based on the "one-drop rule": one drop of African-American blood is sufficient to render anyone African-American. This position is enormously ironic in light of the origin of the one-drop rule, which began in the antebellum South as a means of increasing the number of slaves by classifying the offspring and descendants of master-slave couplings, not as white or mixed, but as black.

The NAACP's concerns may never be realized. In 1994, the Census Bureau tested nearly 300 households in Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago. It gave the households a revised Survey of Income form that included a multiracial response option. The percentage of those identifying themselves as multiracial, 7.3 percent, was higher than expected. More surprisingly, it was Hispanics who most often chose the multiracial option.

Basing decisions on the percentage of mixed blood is no less distasteful. The San Francisco schools define "nonwhite" as anyone whose "ancestry is one-quarter [one grandparent] or more nonwhite." Perhaps inevitably, some San Franciscans have proposed the establishment of an "ethnic purity board" to evaluate job applicants' claims of Hispanic ancestry.

Allowing people to check the multiracial box would seem to be the best alternative. The number of multiracial Americans will only increase. As the millions of recent Asian and Hispanic immigrants begin their climb toward assimilation they will increasingly intermarry with other groups. Already more Japanese-Americans marry outside their ethnic group than marry other Japanese. Maintaining a classification system shaped by computer punch cards is foolish. Let Americans identify themselves as they choose.