Demographic Sketch Emerges on Multiracial People

In May, new Census estimates showed that the number of people who identify as mixed race in the United States rose 3.4 percent last year from the previous year to about 5.2 million, making it the country’s fastest-growing demographic for that period. 

That news came just nine years after the U.S. Census Bureau for the first time allowed respondents to check more than one box when identifying their race.

The multiracial group now makes up 5 percent of the nation’s minority population, and its numbers are growing along with its potential influence.

“As that population grows, it will be easier for researchers to get a better understanding of how multiracial people function in society,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director for the House Subcommittee on Census and Population who oversaw the Census Bureau and other Department of Commerce agencies for President Obama’s transition team. “The more data are collected, the more the picture will become clearer.”

Today, the picture is reflected in differences in regional growth of mixed-race populations as well as in emerging multiracial communities. Nationally, 40 percent of the mixed-race population is concentrated in the West, according to 2000 Census estimates. Twenty-seven percent live in the South, 18 percent in the Northeast and 15 percent in the Midwest.

Brookings Fellow William Frey

“Go to Hawaii or some parts of California and New Mexico, and you can see that there is much more blending going on than in other parts of country,” notes William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That will eventually disburse to other parts of the country, especially among the younger part of the population.”

 What the data have revealed is that America’s mixed-race population is young. Forty-two percent of this growing group is under the age of 18, compared with about 26 percent of the overall U.S. population. Just 5 percent are over age 65, compared with 12 percent nationally.

But when it comes to politics and social issues, it is more difficult to find information about the mixed-race demographic. Simply put, there is a lack of data.

“I don't know about the voting patterns of [mixed-race individuals],” says Melissa Herman, a sociologist at Dartmouth College. “ I don't know of any dataset large enough to figure this out.”

The underlying problem is that most political surveys do not allow respondents to identify as mixed-race. Those that do sometimes merge mixed-race with other categories or contain too few mixed-race respondents for the data to be statistically significant.

However, the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey -- a national collaboration of 30 research teams -- allowed respondents to identify as “mixed.” More than 30,000 people were surveyed on their political beliefs, participation and views of Congress. Of those, 513 -- or 1.6 percent -- identified as “mixed.”

CCES data show that multiracial individuals appear to be more liberal than other races. Fifty-two percent self-identified as Democrats.

They strongly support a woman’s right to an abortion and staunchly oppose a ban on gay marriage. They are also politically active: 42 percent of the group reports that they donated money to a candidate or campaign, more than any other race.

Professor James Gimpel, who headed the CCES team at the University of Maryland, warns the data are not perfectly representative. Because the poll was conducted on the Internet, the group "is a bit more elite than a striclty random draw would provide," he said.

But C.N. Le, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says he is not surprised by the findings.

“I think that because of their experiences straddling [at least two] different sets of cultures, they are likely to be more personally aware of and interested in social issues and second, are more motivated to act upon their opinions in the form of voting,” Le said in an e-mail.

Academics and researchers are hopeful that more data will be collected on the political habits of the mixed-race community. The 2010 Census promises to reveal an even more nuanced sketch of a group that reflects the changing face of America.

 “What they are going to do is blur the racial classifications,” says Frey. “[R]acial identities that people have will tend to become less distinct. A lot has to do with mixed-race marriage, interracial dating, and mixed-race children.”

--By Christopher M. Matthews and Shauna Miller