289. "Let's Not Be Boxed in by Color," The Washington Post, Outlook, (June 8, 1997), p. C3. Also published: "Other Americans Help Brake Down Racial Barriers," International Herald Tribune, (June 10, 1997), p.9.

In 1990, the Census Bureau offered Americans the choice of 16 racial categories. The main groupings were white and black, which 92 percent of the population chose. The remaining categories were Native American, Aleut and Eskimo, 10 variations of Asian and Pacific Islanders, and "Other." Some 9.8 million Americans, or 4 percent of the total population, chose "Other" rather than one of the established mono-racial categories -- as compared to fewer than 1 million in 1970.

This number will continue to expand. Since 1970, the number of mixed-race children in the United States has quadrupled to reach the 2 million mark. And there are six times as many intermarriages today as there were in 1960. Indeed, some sociologists predict that, even within a generation, Americans will begin to look more like Hawaii's blended racial mix.

It's time to acknowledge the increasing number of multiracial Americans -- not only because doing so gives us a more accurate portrait of the population, but because it will help to break down the racial barriers that now divide this country. And the place to recognize these new All-Americans is with the next census in the year 2000. Although the actual count will not begin for another two years, the decision about which racial categories are to be used will be made this year -- and it is already the subject of considerable controversy.

Many people feel they don't belong in one of the existing mono-racial categories. Some simply reject the notion of being categorized. Others, especially Hispanics, are viewed as members of one race but wish to be considered as members of another, or change their minds as to which race they belong to over their lifetime. The great variation in skin color and other racial features within all racial groups makes the question of who is "in" versus who is "out" far more flexible than it sometimes seems. For example, many Hispanics have dark skin but do not consider themselves black, just as many light-skinned African Americans do not wish to pass as white.

The "Other" category, which many of these people chose, has never been fully recognized as an independent grouping. When the Census Bureau released its 1990 data for use by the government, it "modified" the figures by eliminating the "Other" category and reclassifying its members according to the mono-racial categories by a process known as hot-decking that is a standard means of imputing missing data in surveys. The Census Bureau argues that it allowed for better comparisons with past data, when the "Other" category did not exist. But this does not explain why government agencies that deal with the distribution of funds by racial categories chose to use the modified data rather than the original which was also available.

The "Other" category is not satisfactory, and dropping the whole social construction of race does not seem to be in the cards, however persuasive the arguments for a colorblind society are. So why not introduce a new "multiracial" category?

The very idea infuriates some leaders of the African American community. Ibrahim K. Sundiata, chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University, argues that it reflects a drive to undermine black solidarity. He fears that in cities where blacks now hold majorities, the new category will divide them and undermine their dominance. But his argument overlooks the fact that nobody will be forced to give up their racial allegiances; citizens will still be free to check the box of their choice, even if the new category is added.

African American leaders also object to a multiracial category because race data is used to enforce civil-rights legislation in employment, voting rights, housing and mortgage lending, health-care services and educational opportunities. They worry that the category could decrease the number of blacks in the nation's official statistics, and thus undermine efforts to enforce anti-discrimination statutes, as well as undercutting numerous social programs based on racial quotas.

It's a concern that Rep. Carrie Meek (D-Fla.) voiced clearly during congressional hearings earlier this year: "I understand how Tiger Woods and the rest of them [mixed-race Americans] feel. But no matter how they feel from a personal standpoint, we're thinking about the census and reporting accuracy . . . . The multiracial category would cloud the count of discrete minorities who are assigned to a lower track in public schools . . . kept out of certain occupations and whose progress toward seniority or promotion has been skewered . . . multiracial categories will reduce the level of political representation for minorities."

Meek is probably correct in predicting that if large numbers of Americans remove themselves from recognized minority categories in favor of a multiracial category, there would be some loss of public funds, set-asides in federal contracts and affirmative-action jobs for certain groups. But the social costs of encouraging people to define themselves by their race are even greater. And the political gimmick of assigning people to a racial category that they have avoided by choosing "Other" is downright dishonest.

In addition, there are strong sociological reasons to favor the creation of a multiracial category in the 2000 Census, as well as abandoning the practice of modifying racial numbers.

Introducing a multiracial category would help soften the racial lines that now divide America by making them more like transitory economic differences rather than harsh, immutable caste lines. Sociologists have long observed that a major reason the United States experiences few confrontations along lines of class is that people in this country believe they can move from one economic stratum to another -- and regularly do so. For instance, workers become foremen, and foremen become small businessmen, who are considered middle-class. There are no sharp class demarcation lines here, based on heredity, as there are in Britain. In the United States, many manual workers consider themselves middle-class, dress up to go to work, with their tools and lunches in their briefcases.

But confrontations do occur along racial lines in America because color lines currently seem rather rigid: Many members of one racial group simply couldn't imagine belonging to another.

If the new category is adopted and, if more and more Americans choose it in future decades, it will help make America look more like Hawaii, where races mix freely, and less like India where castes still divide the population sharply. And the blurring of racial lines will encourage greater social cohesiveness overall.

Perhaps how one marks a tiny box on the 2000 Census form is between oneself and the keepers of statistics. But, if the multiracial concept becomes part of the census -- the nation's main source of statistics -- it will soon break out and enter the social vocabulary.

Early indications that the country is ready for more widespread changes in our social categories and social thinking is supported by the fact that in some states these processes have already begun to unfold. In California, there is an Association for Multi-Ethnic Americans, and several states have introduced legislation to create a multiracial category on school and college application forms. At least two states, Georgia and Indiana, have already required government agencies to use the multiracial category.

At stake is the question of what kind of America we envision for the future. Some imagine a blur of racial distinctions, with Americans constituting some kind of new hybrid race. In the fall of 1993, Time magazine ran a cover story on the subject, featuring a computer composite of a future American incorporating characteristics of several races -- a new rather handsome breed with almond-shaped eyes, straight, dark hair and honey-colored skin.

That vision is often confronted by those who are keen to maintain strict racial lines and oppose intermarriage (especially between white men and black women), in order to maintain the races as separate "nations." (The term nation is significant because it indicates a high level of tribalism.) In a world full of interracial strife, this attitude, however understandable it is as a response to racial prejudice and discrimination, is troubling. I'd rather see a situation in which those who seek to uphold their separate group identities will do so (ideally viewing themselves and being seen as subgroups of a more encompassing community rather than as separate nations), but those who wish to redefine themselves will be able to do so, gradually creating an ever larger group that is free from racial categorization.

If a multiracial category is included in Census 2000, in the future we might think of adding one more category, that of "multi-ethnic" origin, which most Americans might wish to check. Then we would have recognized the full importance of my favorite African American saying: We came in many ships, but we now ride in the same boat.

Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, is the author of "The New Golden Rule" (Basic Books) and the founder and director of the Communitarian Network.

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