An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2005

Multiracialism & the civil rights future

Kim M. Williams

Kim M. Williams is assistant professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Her current research concerns the rise of the multiracial movement in America.

Spurred by a small group of activists in the 1990s, the American system of racial classification changed recently in a conceptually bold way. With moving reference to the self-esteem of their children, along with the moral conviction that multiracial recognition could help the entire nation beyond an impasse, multiracial advocates were astonishingly successful in the 1990s.

Yet at the height of activity, the multiracial movement involved no more than a thousand individuals, mainly living on the East and West Coasts. Only a handful of leaders pushed the multiracial category effort forward, in fits and starts, throughout the decade. Despite its small size, the group that advanced the cause did not agree on much beyond the belief that forcing multiracial Americans into monoracial categories was inaccurate and inappropriate. Still, with only the slightest nudging by this poorly financed and increasingly fractious handful of activists, six states passed legislation between 1992 and 1998 to add a multiracial category to state forms. During the same period, legislators introduced multiracial category bills in five additional states, while two other states added a multiracial designation by administrative mandate.

The multiracialists’ best-known campaign would have added a multiracial category to the 2000 census. While the group did not get exactly what it wanted, its efforts led to the creation of an unprecedented “mark one or more” option, allowing individual Americans to identify with as many racial groups as they saw fit. Throughout the prolonged review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) culminating in this 1997 decision, the priorities of traditional civil rights advocates were twofold. First, they strongly opposed a stand-alone multiracial category, fearing that it would jeopardize civil and voting rights enforcement by diluting the count of minorities. Having successfully averted this outcome, but faced with no alternative to multiple check-offs, civil rights proponents secondly strove to ensure that multiple-race responses would be tabulated to a minority group.

The OMB met both demands. It rejected a stand-alone multiracial category and arrived at a tabulation scheme that has actually increased the tally of minority groups in some contexts, since anyone who checks off boxes for both white and a minority race counts as part of the latter for civil rights purposes. From one perspective, the technical fix adopted by the federal government–intended to balance the tension between growing racial fluidity on the one hand, and ongoing racial and ethnic data needs on the other–amounted to symbolic appeasement. Federal-level multiple-race data serve no statutory purpose, and the tabulation guidelines stipulate a systematic process by which to convert multiple-race responses into single-race data. This is necessary because, to enforce civil and voting rights laws, we must be able to distinguish between those who are members of minority groups and those who are not.

Only 2.4 percent of the population, about 6.8 million people, identify with multiple races, as measured in 2000. At first glance, this might seem insignificant. Given that civil rights enforcement depends heavily on patterns, and that ‘multiple-race’ is not a protected class, the consensus has been that the multiple-race option is probably irrelevant to civil rights claims involving the size and the characteristics of minority groups.1  But is the “mark one or more” format merely symbolic? Is the symbolism politically irrelevant?

On both counts, I think the answer is no. Consider the circumstances under which a handful of disorganized activists could mount such a successful campaign in the first place.

The Census Bureau’s biggest problems since 1970 in one way or another have revolved around race. In an effort to avoid conflicts and lawsuits like those surrounding the prior three censuses (most of which concerned the undercount and its controversial remedy, sampling), the OMB requested that Congress hold hearings on the standards for racial and ethnic classification to be used in 2000.2 .  .  .


  • 1But see Roderick J. Harrison, “Inadequacies of Multiple-Response Race Data in the Federal Statistical System,” in Joel Perlmann and Mary Waters, eds., The New Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Individuals (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002).
  • 2The director of the Census Bureau is a presidential appointee who reports to the secretary of commerce. The OMB, which reviews and decides upon budget requests from the Bureau, exerts further control.
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