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Identity

The Dramatic Rise in the Nation's Multiracial Population

The 2020 U.S. Census revealed a 276% increase in multiracial people.

Key points

  • Population scientists and race scholars point to three sources of change in the nation's multiracial population.
  • Such a change may reflect an improving social climate that allows mixed-racial heritage to have membership in multiple racial groups.
  • It may also reflect greater willingness from institutions to acknowledge racial complexity beyond a few categories of race.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released 2020 redistricting data. The share of the U.S. population who racially identified as "two or more races" increased by 276% between 2010 and 2020.1 This striking change has garnered much attention and left many observers wondering: What accounts for the dramatic rise in the multiracial population?

Population scientists and race scholars point to three sources of change. First, the number of interracial unions and multiracial births has been increasing. Over the past few decades, the share of multiracial births tripled between 1980 and 2017.2 One-in-seven U.S. infants in 2017 had parents who belonged to a different ethno-racial group. Second, this rise may result from data collection efforts, which offer multiracial individuals the opportunity to represent their mixed-race backgrounds adequately.1 Third, this dramatic rise may largely be the product of the greater willingness of multiracial individuals to self-identify as “multiracial” instead of choosing to identify with one of their ethno-racial backgrounds.3 The majority of adults of mixed-racial backgrounds (61%) do not identify as “multiracial,” choosing to identify with a single ethno-racial background. If large shares of these individuals changed their identity from “single-race” to “multiracial,” then we would see a drastic rise in the share of multiracial individuals.4

What factors determine whether individuals of mixed-racial backgrounds forego their multiracial identity and choose to identify with a single race?

A Pew Report, published in 2015,4 highlights three features:

  • Physical appearance. One's sense of attachment shapes racial identification to a particular ethno-racial group and others' perceptions about their membership in specific groups. For example, in an interview with People Magazine, Michelle Obama stated that “Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of trouble catching cabs.”5 For biracial individuals like Barack Obama, being repeatedly perceived by strangers as a member of a particular ethno-racial group may prompt them to identify more closely with that group.
  • Closeness with one side of the family. Multiracial individuals report having more contact with and being closer with one side of the family. For example, 69% of biracial white-black adults report having had a lot of contact with black relatives, which contrasted with 21% who had more contact with their white relatives.4 Greater exposure and closeness to one side of the family are likely the product of (a) multiracial children's greater risk to family instability and (b) severity of family opposition towards an interracial union.6 Greater exposure to one side of the family may mean that multiracial individuals feel a greater sense of attachment to one side of their ethno-racial heritage.
  • Pressure from others to identify as single-race. One in five multiracial individuals felt pressure from family, friends, and others to choose one race.4

Multiracial identity, however, is fluid and large shares of individuals of mixed-race change their racial identity (i.e., from single-race to multiracial and vice versa) at different points in time. How do current events contribute to changes in shares of individuals who identify as “mixed-race”?

The increasing interracial marriages reflect more tolerant attitudes towards interracial unions, including marriages involving family members. With less family opposition, interracial couples and their offspring have more contact with relatives from both sides of the family. Greater exposure to their multiracial heritage may mean that larger shares of individuals of mixed-racial heritage will embrace all their ethno-racial backgrounds more fully.

Over the past year, there has been a greater social push to promote diversity and inclusion. The pervasiveness of these conversations may mean that multiracial individuals feel less pressure from friends and/or family to choose one of their ethno-racial backgrounds. Simultaneously, people may be less inclined to arbitrarily assign racial identity to a stranger, neighbor, and/or co-worker based solely on physical appearance. As these interactions and pressures diminish, the share of mixed-race individuals who identify as “multiracial” will increase.

Overall, the rising share of individuals of mixed-race backgrounds who identify as “multiracial” is likely a sign of diminishing distance across ethno-racial groups and improving race relations. It is likely a reflection of a social climate that allows people to have membership across multiple ethno-racial groups. It also reflects a push for institutions to take more steps to acknowledge racial complexity in our society.

Will the share of U.S. adults of mixed-racial backgrounds who identify as "two or more races" continue to grow? How fast will it grow? Only time will tell.

References

1. Jones, N., R. Marks, R. Ramirez, & M. Rios Vargas. (2021). Improved Race/Ethnicity Measures Reveal that America is Much More Multiracial. The U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/improved-race-ethnicity-….

2. Livingston, G. (2017). The rise of multiracial and multiethnic babies in the U.S. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/06/06/the-rise-of-multiracia…

3. Chavez, N. (2021). Multiracial population grew in almost every county in the US. It doesn't mean racism is over. CNN. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/15/us/census-2020-multiracial-nation/index…

4. Parker, K., R. Morin, J. Menasce Horowitz, M. Hugo Lopez, and M. Rohall. (2015). Multiracial in America
Proud, Diverse, and Growing in Numbers. Washington, DC: Pew Report.

5. Rodriguez, M. (2014). "Obama had trouble getting cabs in Chicago, first lady says." Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-obamas-racism-talk-2014…

6. Choi, K. and R. Goldberg. (2021). Multiracial Children's Experiences of Family Instability. Journal of Marriage and Family 83(3): 627-643. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12763

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