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Obama embodies growing visibility of mixed-race America
The Press-Enterprise


August 28, 2008

When Sen. Barack Obama takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Thursday night, he will be heralded as the first black candidate to accept a major-party presidential nomination.

For many multiracial Americans, Obama -- the son of a white mother and black father -- will represent something more: A symbol of their growing visibility in a country that has long viewed race primarily through the prism of black and white.

Yet Obama's self-identification as black after years of struggling with the matter illustrates the complexities surrounding racial identity. Multiracial California residents say they, too, have wrestled with their identities, and with society's insistence on forcing them to choose a race instead of allowing them to embrace all of their backgrounds.

"A lot of people struggle with it, but it shouldn't be a struggle," said Maria Shepard, of Highland, Calif. who is half black and half Filipina. "It's society that makes it a struggle."

The U.S. Census Bureau did not even count multiracial people until 2000, when it began allowing respondents to check more than one racial box on the census form. It found that more than 6.8 million Americans -- or 2.4 percent -- were multiracial.

Nearly a quarter of them lived in California, where 4.7 percent of respondents identified themselves as belonging to more than one race. Five percent of people in San Bernardino County and 4.4 percent in Riverside County were multiracial.

The census statistics portend a rapidly growing mixed-race population. Less than 2 percent of the adult population was multiracial in 2000, but 4 percent of people younger than 18 were.

Fifty years ago, interracial marriage was rare. Only 0.4 percent of couples in 1960 were interracial, according to the census. In 2000, nearly 6 percent were. Census officials discussed whether to create a new "multiracial" designation on the census form but decided instead on the multiple-box option, said Jorge Chapa, who was part of a Census Bureau advisory committee that discussed how to characterize multiracial people.

"Most people don't say, 'I'm mixed race,' but 'I'm this race and that race,'" said Chapa, director of the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Some people identify with a single race because of their appearance, he said. Obama is biracial, but society treats him as a black man, with the discrimination and stereotyping that often accompanies that, he said. What Obama calls himself would not diminish that, Chapa said.

In his best-selling book, "Dreams from My Father," Obama wrote of how some multiracial people with black ancestry try to distance themselves from blacks.

He said he wanted to avoid doing the same thing and being seen as a sellout. But he also wrote about how he slipped back and forth between black and white worlds, and how his white mother was the most important influence in his life.

In a sense, we're all multiracial because human beings emanate from Africa, said Yolanda Moses, a professor of anthropology at UC Riverside and co-editor of "How Real is Race?: A Sourcebook on Race, Culture and Biology."

Racial mixing has occurred throughout U.S. history, even if most people did not identify themselves as multiracial. Laws during slavery, and later legalized segregation, deemed anyone with black ancestry as black, no matter what their appearance, she said. That was in part to reserve "whiteness" only for those who were seen as racially pure, she said.

"None of this makes sense from a biological point of view," Moses said. "Race has everything to do with culture and socially constructed borderlines."

The census reflects only how people view themselves, not necessarily their true ancestry, she said. As more politicians such as Obama, sports figures like Tiger Woods and Hollywood celebrities like Halle Berry become more visible, more people will check more than one racial box on the census form, Moses predicted.

Racial identities may shift depending on the audience, said Jungmiwha Bullock, president of the Los Angeles-based Association of MultiEthnic Americans. For example, someone who is black and white may only use the word "black" among older African-Americans, because they lived during an era when trying to identify with white meant "passing" for privileges not afforded to black people. With a multiracial audience, they may identify both of their racial backgrounds.

In addition, people's self-identification can be influenced by factors such as when and where they grew up, and which parent or parents raised them, Bullock said.


E-mail David Olson at dolson(at)
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