Has The New York Times Pronounced
The Multiracial Initiative Dead?

By Charles Michael Byrd

Steven A. Holmes' article "Census Tests New Category To Identify Racial Groups" in the 12-06-96 New York Times raises two interesting questions. To what extent does America's "Paper Of Record" seek to influence the nation's social agenda, and has the Times declared the multiracial initiative dead and buried, siding with its more vociferous opponents?

Television talk show host Tony Brown -- of Tony Brown's Journal -- recently offered to me that the Times is very discriminating about what it puts in its newspaper. "Almost amounts, in my opinion, to an editorial when they do a news story. Whatever reason -- they don't always say yeah or nay, but they're very selective," Brown said. He was speaking of two stories that the Times ran last year, one July 6 on the Census initiative and the other on the day of the July 20 Multiracial Solidarity March. "The New York Times certainly seemed to be very pro your point of view. They had one story about your March on Page 1," Brown added. In fact, the July 6 story, "More Than Identity Rides On a New Racial Category: Beyond 'Other'" by Linda Mathews, was widely viewed as hostile to the multiracial initiative, and if there is a way to "bury" a front page story, the Times did it that day. July 6 was the Saturday of a long Fourth of July weekend. The July 20 article, "Multiracial Americans Ready To Claim Their Own Identity" by Michel Marriott, was quite positive but obviously could not help boost the turnout for the rally. Brown's point was essentially, "Why the low turnout with all this media coverage?"

Was the Times engaging in "social engineering," a practice so anathematized by "social conservatives?" Has the paper now deemed the mixed-race Census initiative null and void? We raise the questions after reading Mr. Holmes' piece on the Census Bureau's reporting of preliminary results of testing alternative versions of the questions on race and Hispanic origin in the 1996 National Content Survey (NCS). This is part of the Census 2000 research and testing program. Results from the NCS and the Race and Ethnic Targeted Test (RAETT) -- also known as the 1996 Census Survey and whose findings will be available in the Spring of 1997 -- will be considered in developing questions that will be included in Census 2000. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Federal Interagency Committee for the Review of Racial and Ethnic Standards will also consider the NCS findings in their review of the Federal standards for the classification of race and ethnicity set forth in Statistical Policy Directive No. 15, Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting.

The Census Bureau found that about one percent of persons reported as multiracial in the versions of the race question on the NCS that included a multiracial or biracial response category. Also, the presence of a multiracial response category in the race question did not have statistically significant effects at the 90-percent confidence level on the percentages of persons who reported as white, as black, as American Indian, or as Asian and Pacific Islander. In addition, an apparent decline in the proportion of persons who reported as Asian and Pacific Islander when a multiracial category was included was not statistically significant at the 90-percent confidence level. However, because the small sample for this group in the NCS might not detect a decline of this size, and a substantial proportion of the write-ins to the multiracial category included Asian and Pacific Islander responses, one cannot rule out the possibility that adding a multiracial category affects this population.

What does this all mean? First, that only one percent checked multiracial proves what we've been saying all along about this category not significantly reducing the number of people previously identifying as black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, etc. (On the other hand, one percent of the U.S. population is approximately 2.6 million living, breathing human beings. That's roughly the size of Chicago and not insignificant.) Second, the line "a substantial proportion of the write-ins to the multiracial category included Asian and Pacific Islander responses" signifies something else that we've been saying. This is not solely about multiracials of a black/white mixture; mixed-race folk of partial Asian ancestry constitute the fastest growing segment of America's multiracial population.

Mr. Holmes' article includes remarks by Dr. Robert B. Hill, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University and the chairman of the Census Bureau's Advisory Committee on the African American population. Hill says, "We think the people who have been pushing this want to de-emphasize the racial component, the black component. We're convinced of that. They say they are multiracial, which means I'm less black or somehow I can have a way of not having to check myself as black and these data are beginning to show that's what will happen." Dr. Hill would benefit from reading two articles that Demian Hess has previously contributed to Interracial Voice: "But You Don't Look Chinese" and "Where Are You From? A mixed-race perspective." I wonder how Demian, whose father is white/Jewish and whose mom is Chinese, might react to Hill's claim that -- by possibly opting for a multiracial identifier -- he somehow wants to be "less black."

(We should note that the multiracial option tested by the Census Bureau was the so-called "open box." This is the one that allows the individual to pencil in the various components of his or her "racial" background after having checked "Multiracial or biracial." That black leaders object to a model which various multiracial organizations devised and proposed to pacify them and government beancounters in the first place demonstrates where we as a community expended and wasted far too much precious time and energy!)

One has to wonder why Mr. Holmes chose not to interview any of the people most involved with this initiative. Many of us believe that we should indeed de-emphasize "race," that we should commence a deathwatch for this man-made division of the human species. The nation is ever-so-slowly moving away from race-based thinking, and we should keep that larger, more long-term view and goal in mind while we press the 2000 initiative. ("Race" and "racial purity" are "real" only to the extent we agree they are; shattering that agreement is the key to eradicating the "reality" of "race" and "racial purity.") Additional suggested reading for Dr. Hill is Stanley Crouch's piece in the 09-29-96 New York Times Magazine (Oops! There's that paper again.) entitled: "Race Is Over." That special edition of the Times Magazine focused on what was likely to occur over the next one-hundred years, however, and even Mr. Crouch hedged a bit by asserting that race will "cease to mean as much 100 years from today." If Dr. Hill had his way, race would doubtless mean even more 100 years from today than it does now.

The real yet largely unspoken fear of black political opponents of a mixed-race option is that, while only one percent of the population might choose it now or in 2000, a higher percentage will undoubtedly check it in ensuing decennial headcounts. We must remember that, as per the racist practice of hypodescent, America tells black/white multiracials from birth that we are black and that no other option will ever be available in our lifetimes. Resistance is futile! That is a brassbound default position that will not go quietly into the night. Against that backdrop, at this point in time, it is no wonder that only a small percentage would willingly identify as "multiracial," especially on a sample survey that in no way guarantees the eventual implementation of the category. Many mulattoes genuinely fear being demonized by people like Dr. Hill who, like well-oiled automatons, repeat the nonsensical mantra: "You're running away from your blackness; you're trying to be white; you're confused." This stance is so sophomoric and so blatantly ignorant that it begs continuous ridicule. Presumably, Dr. Hill considers himself "intelligent," yet he apparently lacks the intellectual capacity to grasp the concept of an individual identifying with the totality of his or her being, the desire of an otherwise self-determined, integral being to name self. That's sad, but it's a condition that exists amongst many "professionals" and "academics." As William Javier Nelson, author of the "Racial Definition Handbook," recently wrote, "I have spoken many times to people in the U.S. intelligentsia as though they can actually emotionally conceive of persons having African and European ancestry and NOT bifurcated into 'black' and 'white' -- and have been stunned by the absolute rigidity of their conceptions. They simply cannot see the world other than 'black' and 'white.'"

Mr. Holmes writes in his article: "The test results suggested that the use of the multiracial category might result in a decrease in the number of people identifying as black or Asian. That prospect concerns leaders of African-American or Asian-American groups who worry about the impact on the enforcement of policies, like the Voting Rights Act, and Federal affirmative action policies." This is the crux of the argument, though Mr. Holmes' reporting might lead one to believe that opposition from the Asian-American community is equal to that emanating from the African-American side. It is not. Relative to the argument that a multiracial identifier would adversely impact "funding streams" for various government programs and affirmative action, I refer again to Tony Brown: "I think, quite frankly, that the political argument is extremely weak. That's like me arguing with you to accept my politics because it's expedient for me. I don't think I could convince you to accept my politics. I don't think I could convince you to be anything you don't want to be." Mr. Brown's courage in making such a public statement will surely earn him the wrath of many within the African-American political leadership who don't cherish such naked honesty.

(Five states -- Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio -- have already implemented a multiracial category on forms that ask for racial identification. At the risk of possible contradiction, we think it's safe to declare the following:

1-) The sky has not fallen in any of these states.
2-) Hordes of locust have not descended upon any these states.
3-) Birds have not begun mating in flight in any of these states.
4-) People have not begun speaking in tongues en masse in any of these states.
5-) There have been no reported sightings of the Antichrist in any of these states.
6-) In none of these states has there has been a cataclysmic rupture in the space-time continuum instantly transporting "black" folk back to the days of picking cotton and singing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."

You would think black "leaders" would have more important things to worry about, like those "geniuses" on the Oakland, California school board who have concluded that black kids are too stupid to learn to speak standard English. That board is either full of Afrocentric neo-nationalists or "educators" who won't acknowledge their failure in educating these kids and who seek to pin the blame on the latters' African ancestry. Teach the children! Stop blaming Africa! We'd expect white racists to do that!)

Instead of heaping scorn upon those who wish to identify one way or another, black leaders should examine the nature of their political agenda. What compels them to attempt to strong-arm people to adhere to this "all for the collective" mentality, a mindset smacking of the Marxist-Communist ideology that even one-hundred-fifty million Russians flatly reject?

Similarly, in the article "Is Race Obsolete?" from the 09-22-96 Boston Globe Magazine, Harvard Professor Cornel West, the author of "Race Matters," says the idea of racial "hybridity" needs to catch up with the manifold other ways in which we celebrate our diverse antecedents. "Cultural hybridity runs through each and every one of us," West says. At the same time, West says he sees how the multiracial movement could threaten black cohesion and strength. Racism's legacy is "so deep," he says, "that the best we all can do is wrestle with each other."

Racial purists like Dr. Hill and Professor West, who can only view "mixed-race" as a divinely inspired, permanent subset of "blackness" (e.g., As black political power is predicated upon a "purist" ideal, West will allow for "cultural" hybridity but not "racial."), and their white opposite numbers and political allies on the other side of the tracks should consider the words of Henry Yu, professor of history and Asian-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles: "The sooner we see ourselves for the hybrids we are, the sooner we can end privileges and societal structures that rest on claims of racial purity. And maybe then we will find a solution to this country's problems with race."

So, can we resolve that the New York Times has declared the multiracial initiative dead? Since I'm trying to be less judgmental in my old age, you make the call on that one, sports fans. What is clear, regardless of media conjecture, is the need to redouble our efforts in the time remaining before OMB makes a final decision on the multiracial category sometime this spring. Whether you have or have not already, contact your congressperson and demand that he or she make your views known to the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, which will have ultimate input on what changes OMB will authorize on the 2000 Census.

Email President Clinton and demand that he keep his word from nearly two years ago. On April 7, 1995, at a forum sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Dallas, the President was asked a question by Marcia McQuern of The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, California. McQuern asked: "We have heard from several people here that there ought to be a multiracial box on the U.S. Census forms so that people with parents of two races wouldn't have to deny one of them. What do you think should happen here?"

The President replied: "I wouldn't be opposed to that. That's the first time I ever heard it, but it makes sense.....We are clearly going to have more and more multiracial, multiethnic children and families in this country. You're the first person who ever asked me that question. But I think it ought to be done. I can't see any reason not to do it." Since then, the President -- who can sign an Executive Order establishing the category immediately -- has been conspicuously silent on this matter, probably not wanting to raise the ire of a constituency that routinely gives the Democratic party ninety+ percent of its vote. He needs to publicly address this issue, however, lest he prove correct his opponents on both sides of the aisle who deride him as an insincere, vacillating liar. With all due respect, Mr. President, the ball's in your court.

(With word that the United Kingdom will test a "mixed ethnic group" question in a pilot study in 1997 for possible inclusion in the UK 2001 Census, our President will surely want to do what's morally correct and maintain America's position as global leader in "progressive civil rights.")

Monitor Interracial Voice for word of the last call for public comments on this issue by OMB. When they announce that, we must respond like a laser beam, flooding that agency with thousands of postcards, letters, email and faxes supporting this initiative. My friends, this is a political battle from which many of the squeamish have backed away. Multiracial activist Linda Mahdesian at Brown University is not one of them, however. After the July 20 rally in D.C. she wrote: "I didn't realize until the rally how violated I and all other mixed race people have been -- at the hands of our government. I am reinvigorated and empowered to do all I can to help our cause." We all need to replicate Linda's spirit. This is winnable!



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