Multiracial Americans Deserve Better Than 'Other'

When the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission publishes its inevitably bleak report on race relations each year, they point to the 800 or so hate crimes that are committed in America's most ethnically, racially, and culturally diverse metropolis.

No mention is made of the 5,000 interethnic marriages that take place there annually, or that L.A. has an intermarriage rate five times higher than the national average. Nor do they cite the growing number of multiracial children - the living and breathing solutions to ethnic tensions - that are born to such couples.

Why? Because the government so far has been unwilling to recognize the very trends that are forging the "melting pot" we Americans claim to desire.

The Clinton administration's Office of Management and Budget is expected to act by the middle of this month on the advice of a federal task force and not adopt a new "multiracial" category for the next decennial census. Ironically, the task force made its recommendation just three weeks after President Clinton challenged the nation last June to become the "world's first multiracial democracy."

The categories of race

Visionary rhetoric notwithstanding, the federal government will still insist on upholding the mutually exclusive categories of race. But how can we pretend to be building a multiracial future as long as we refuse to officially acknowledge multiracial Americans?

This spring, golfer Tiger Woods threw Americans for a loop when he objected to being called African American and referred to himself as "Cablinasian," a blending of his Caucasian, black, Indian, and Thai blood.

One national columnist who couldn't begin to comprehend the complexity of the young golfer's ethnic identity scolded Woods for not accepting President Clinton's invitation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's integration of major league baseball. She saw the young golfer as a black athlete, and expected him to behave accordingly.

But - racially speaking, anyway - Tiger Woods is not an isolated phenomenon. Since 1970, the population of multiracial children has quadrupled in the United States. Since the US Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967, intermarriage has become increasingly accepted and common. Between 1960 and 1990, the number of once-illegal unions between races recorded by the Census increased 900 percent.

Still, the interracial children of these marriages are forced to identify with only one of their parents' racial backgrounds - assuming the parent has only one - or check "other" when filling out federal forms.

Tiger Woods has said to choose only one of his ancestries is to deny other parts of him. The federal task force has recommended that multiracial Americans be allowed to describe themselves as members of more than one race. In other words, Woods may be shading all four bubbles on his next census form.

What of civil rights groups?

Ironically, the civic rights organizations in the best positions to revolutionize the way Americans look at race have been the least likely to push for change. Fearing the diminishment of their constituencies, both the National Council of La Raza and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lobbied against the adoption of the new category.

The nuances and complexities of contemporary race relations may prove to be too threatening to the stark civil rights-era perspective forged in the segregationist past.

In racially and ethnically diverse California, where Clinton chose to deliver his address, some wondered whether a product of the segregationist South really had anything to teach them about interethnic cooperation. Indeed, the president and his seven-member commission have embarked on their year-long initiative on race using an outdated frame of reference ill-equipped to evaluate the status of race relations, let alone improve them.

Creating a multiracial category for the 2000 census would not only properly acknowledge the country's most promising trend in the battle to break down racial barriers, but it would also challenge Americans to rethink their views of racial categories as intractable and of racial groups as monolithic. It would help erase the "versus" between the us and them, as well as officially recognize the growing number of Americans who are subsuming the boundaries of race in their private lives.

While a generation ago government held out the greatest hope to bridge the racial divide in our private lives, today we can't even expect it to keep up with the progress we're making at home.

* Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy.

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