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This nation's battle with racial and ethnic tension has been well documented through political measures, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Act to the Naturalization and Immigration Act. While most of us have observed and interpreted this history as a struggle, a series of tumultuous circumstances, and have seen race as a dividing force, others have explored beyond their own identity and managed to interact with people outside their own races. In fact, some even managed to marry and have children as results of their interactions. However, despite the increasing complexity of our society, we have not thought of a good way to recognize those people who do not necessarily fit into conventional categories of race.

For a long time, if a person had 1/16 of blood that was black, that person was considered black. Even today, Halle Berry was labeled as the first black actress to win the Best Actress in Oscars though her mother is white. We routinely consider Sen. Barack Obama as black though he is a product of a white mother and a black father. Prior to 2000, even the United States Census Bureau couldn't figure out how to adequately deal with people who did not fall neatly into existing categories. The decennial census in 2000 was the first time people were allowed to identify themselves with more than one racial category.

See a map of multiracially identifying Chicagoland.
As a result of this change, the 2000 Census captured nearly 7.3 million people, or 2.3 percent of the total U.S. population, who belong to more than two racial categories. A significant proportion of these (32 percent) indicated that they are white and "other." Considering that 97 percent of the people in this category are Latinos, one can fairly speculate that they are the products of non-Hispanic white and Hispanic lineage. In addition, Asian-white combinations (862,032) are slightly higher than black-white combinations (791,801).

In Illinois, 79 percent of 249,431 multi-racial people live in the Chicago metropolitan nine-county area. Surprisingly, there is a higher multi-racial population in the suburbs (109,255) than in the City of Chicago (87,381), and with the rapid increase in Latinos and Asians in the suburbs, these numbers could have risen considerably since the last decennial census. While there are more black-whites (32,963) in the state than Asian-whites (30,009), there are more Asian-whites in the Chicago (8,001) than black-whites (6,637).

If the presence of a multi-racial population is any indicator on a city's level of diversity, Chicago falls far behind its peers. In Chicago, 30.2 out of every 1,000 people were multi-racial in 2000. While this is higher than the national rate of 25.8, it is far below New York (50.2) and Los Angeles (51.8). Other cities showing significantly higher multi-racial rates than Chicago include Miami (50.7), San Diego (49.8), Seattle (48.2), Boston (46.9), Minneapolis (46.5), Oklahoma City (45.4), San Francisco (45.5), Portland (45.2), Las Vegas (43.5), Denver (38.5), and Phoenix (33.8). As one would expect, 149.7 for every 1,000 Honolulu residents were known to have parents from at least two different racial backgrounds. In fact, 40.3 out of 1,000 people in Honolulu belonged to three or more racial groups.

A number of factors contribute to the number of Asian-whites through the past six decades or so, including the substantial number of Asian women brought into the United States as brides upon the return of American soldiers from Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines; and an economic and educational status of Asian immigrants and their subsequent generations that put them in close proximity to middle and upper-middle class whites.

By contrast, one could argue that the lower number of biracial black-whites, particularly in Chicago, reflects the history of severe segregation that prevented a degree of interaction between the two groups. Black Hawk Hancock, a sociologist at DePaul University, suggests that the ways in which Asian-Americans interact with whites is "normalized" due to their socioeconomic status and proximity, as opposed to blacks who are still marginalized due to stereotypes and stigma.

Historical events and changes from slavery to immigration have impacted the demographic composition of our country, although the ways in which we tabulate people have not. And that is perhaps why these census figures of multi-racial people today are admittedly underestimated. Most Americans still tend to think of race in terms of one simple category, as well. But the multi-racial segment of the population will undoubtedly continue to grow, not only because of increasing levels of interaction across different racial groups, but also increased awareness that will likely cause those who have not thought of themselves as multi-racial to reconsider.

Kiljoong Kim is Research Director with the Egan Urban Center and a lecturer of sociology at DePaul University.


Posted on June 25, 2006

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