Multiracial Americans - one of the nation's most dynamic groups - pose a growing challenge to traditional notions about racial identity.
They're adding new hues to the complexion of America. They're blurring distinctions among black and white, Asian and native American - which may one day help erase racism in the United States.
But much remains to be known about them. Even simple questions like, "How many multiracial Americans are there?" are proving tricky.
New state figures from the Census Bureau, however, offer some clues about this group, which includes golfer Tiger Woods and singers Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey. According to the data released so far, multiracial Americans are young, tend to live in cities in the West, and come from a wide variety of communities: from military bases to college towns to blue-collar, industrial cities.
Officially, one in 40 Americans calls himself or herself the product of two or more racial groups, according to the 2000 census. And 14 of the nation's 100 largest cities boast a multiracial group that represents 5 percent or more of their populations. Eleven of the cities are in California.
But such numbers are almost certainly skewed, demographers say, because many Americans confuse race and ethnicity when filling out forms. For example, the Census Bureau regards Hispanics as an ethnic group, like Polish or Chinese, rather than a race, like white or Asian. So the bureau expected Latinos to mark their race as white or black and their ethnic origin as Hispanic. But the bureau now concedes that many Hispanics marked themselves as white or black and "some other race" for Hispanic. In effect, they're "phantom multiracials."
Places that rank high
Count only non-Hispanics, and another picture emerges. Only seven large cities can boast a 5 percent or greater share of multiracials. Four of them are in California.
The US city with the biggest share of non-Hispanic multiracials is Honolulu (with 13.7 percent). That's no surprise, given the city's heavy Asian population. Neither is Anchorage (5.5 percent), with its large share of Alaska natives.
The rest of the list wasn't as predictable, however. The usual melting pots, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, are bested by lesser-known California cities such as Glendale (10.6 percent), Stockton (6.0 percent), Sacramento (5.7 percent), and Fremont (5.1 percent).
You can probably discount Glendale because of phantom multiracials in the form of Armenians. "So many recent immigrants were confused," says Julie Park, research manager for the race contours project of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "We hypothesize that the majority of the people who marked multirace are actually Armenians who marked 'white' and 'some other race,' delineating their ethnic background."
Surprisingly, only one large US city east of the Sierra Nevada boasts a non-Hispanic multiracial population larger than 5 percent. And it's not New York, Chicago, or Miami. It's unheralded Jersey City, N.J.
Once a center for organized crime, the city now hosts a crazy quilt of people - from poor Egyptians looking for a new life to New Yorkers in search of cheaper housing.
Nationally, multiracial Americans represent the second-smallest racial group after native Hawaiians (which include other Pacific Islanders). And almost half the group is under the age of 20, according to data for 25 states released so far by the Census Bureau.
In all but five of those states, they have the lowest median age of any racial group. The most striking examples lie in the Plains states: Nebraska (median age 16.6) and Iowa (16.2).
The group seems to be growing. In every state, except Vermont, in which data have been released, the largest cohort of multiracials are 4 years old or younger. Demographers predict more growth because the number of interracial marriages is on the upswing.
These individuals tend to concentrate in cities with racial balance, if the six large cities with 5 percent or more multiracials are any indication. Discounting Glendale, Calif., (because of its Armenians), only one of the six other cities has a white majority. Each boasts big numbers of at least two racial minorities roughly in balance with either the white population or each other.
Multiracial Americans appear to come from all levels of society. Some have parents in the military, where interracial marriage is more common, demographers say. That may explain why conservative San Diego, rich in military personnel, has a higher percentage of non-Hispanic multiracials (4.2 percent) than more cosmopolitan San Francisco (3.5 percent).
College towns, blue-collar cities
Multiracials appear just as likely to concentrate in an industrial city as in a college town - perhaps more so. Bloomington, Ind., a big college town, boasts a 2 percent multiracial population, slightly less than more blue-collar Fort Wayne, Ind. (2.3 percent).
Or consider Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its non-Hispanic multiracial population ranks fairly high in the state (4.1 percent), but Aquinnah (8.8 percent), Brockton (7.6 percent), New Bedford (5.5 percent), and Everett (4.8 percent) all rank noticeably higher.
Throw out the first three Massachusetts communities because of an unusual concentration of native Americans (Aquinnah) and phantom multiracials in the form of Cape Verdeans and Portuguese (Brockton and New Bedford), says Alison Donta, manager of the population program of the Massachusetts Institute for Social and Economic Research, located at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. That still leaves blue-collar Everett outdoing Cambridge.
But don't expect multiracial Americans to transform the nation's collective thinking overnight, demographers and sociologists warn. "We're certainly going to have more intermarriage and a higher percentage of people who are bi- or multiracial by birth or ancestry," says Roderick Harrison, director of the data bank at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank dealing with African-American issues. But "it's still a very heavy preoccupation with race."
"It's hard to say how much has changed," adds David Harris, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Individuals may classify themselves as black and white, but "that may not at all change the way a police officer sees that person driving down the road."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor