Florida Draws New Race Line

'Multiracial' category gets mixed reviews, may disrupt school set-asides

The Coconut Grove Elementary School registration form said pick one: black, white, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaskan native, or Asian/Pacific islander.

But Melissa Meyer, who is white, and Thallieus Massey, black and American Indian, felt their son was a mix of all three.

Dade County school officials told them that unless they chose one racial category, Jordan would not be admitted to second grade. Both sides balked.

''It was like asking a kid to choose between his mother and father,'' says Ms. Meyer. ''It made them feel that they're not supposed to be what they really are.''

Finally, the state of Florida chose another path. It created a sixth category: multiracial.

The move represents much more than a clerical change to mollify parents trying to protect mixed-race identities. It could impact the government's attempt to provide education equitably in a melting pot society.

The designation threatens to complicate the implementation of school desegregation, alter the number of seats set aside for minorities, and disrupt the distribution of university scholarships.

Florida is the latest of 12 states to establish the category. It will provide a key test of the concept, given the state's ethnic and racial diversity, at a time when the federal government is moving toward adopting the designation.

Desegregation impact

''Desegregation plans could be affected,'' says a senior official in the Florida Education Department. ''In Dade [County], where a federal court order calls for assigning students to schools based on whether they are 'black' or 'non-black', the multiracial category raises the question of which group to pick for multiracial children.''

Magnet schools and programs, which reserve a certain number of seats for each race, will also have to decide how to admit multiracial children. Will these students get their own seats based upon a new multiracial slot or be placed in a black, white, or Hispanic slot? The answer could mean the difference between acceptance or rejection to sought-after programs.

''It's an invitation to gamesmanship,'' says Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. ''Already people are taking advantage of set-asides, and this new category may further exacerbate the problem.''

It is still unclear to education officials in Florida whether the new multiracial category will be considered minorities for affirmative action purposes. ''As of now, 'black' is the only category considered a minority,'' says Bailey Stewart, assistant superintendent for student services in Dade County. ''That of course could change, especially with other ethnic groups wanting their own category on school forms.''

Most states still use the five basic categories because they are the only ones accepted by the federal government. The US Department of Education uses the numbers in each category to allocate school money and monitor civil rights violations.

For federal reporting purposes, children now identified in Florida as multiracial are still lumped into one of the five groupings. ''The multiracial children will be divided among the categories in proportion with each school system's demographics,'' says Lavan Dukes of the Florida Education Department.

Feds are next

But that practice may only be short-term. The federal government has indicated it will likely add a multiracial category on forms by 1997.

Numerous groups have been pushing for the addition in time for the next US Census, to be taken in the year 2000. During the past two decades, multiracial marriages in America have increased fourfold. It is estimated they now account for 2 percent of all marriages and have produced more than 1 million multiracial children.

The multiracial category could actually undermine affirmative action programs, according to Stephan Thernstrom, a professor of history at Harvard University.

''With this new category, there's no clear history of discrimination, so there may be no need for affirmative action to make up for past wrongs,'' says Mr. Thernstrom, who used to sit on a graduate admissions committee at Harvard. ''It also raises the question, 'if you're only half-Hispanic, will you now qualify for less affirmative action programs than a full-Hispanic?'''

The debate over the multiracial category is sure to intensify. The six racial categories now available to parents in Florida could get larger by next year.

At least two groups are pushing to get an African-American category added to school forms to differentiate themselves from Caribbean and East Indian blacks. Another group is trying to get a further breakdown of the Asian category.

''Their motives for doing this are sincere - providing a better self-image for the children,'' says a senior official in the Florida Education Department. ''But unfortunately, by pigeonholing these children into these sub-categories, you may end up creating a bigger social problem.''

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