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Black or mixed race? Obama's census choice sparks debate over how people identify

Barack Obama on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania, October 2008
Barack Obama on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania, October 2008
Photo by rob.rudloff/Flickr (Creative Commons)

More than a hundred comments have been posted so far in reaction to an interesting opinion piece today from the Los Angeles Times' Gregory Rodriguez on how "the most famous mixed-race person in the world," President Obama, identified himself racially on his census form last year. He checked off only one race, black. From the piece:

It could have been a historic teaching moment. Instead, President Obama, the most famous mixed-race person in the world, checked off only one race — black — last year on his census form. And in so doing, he missed an opportunity to articulate a more nuanced racial vision for the increasingly diverse country he heads.

The president also bucked a trend. Last month, the Census Bureau announced that the number of Americans who identified themselves as being of more than one race in 2010 grew about 32% over the last decade. The number of people who identified as both white and black jumped an astounding 134%. And nearly 50% more children were identified as multiracial on this census, making that category the fastest-growing youth demographic in the country.

To be sure, the number of people — 9 million, or 2.9% of the population — who identified themselves as of more than one race on their census form is still small. But the trend is clear.

It's only been since 2000 that Americans have been able to identify themselves on census forms as being of more than one race, and as Rodriguez writes, the increase in those who have since done so on the forms "suggests not only an increase in absolute numbers, but also that people are growing more comfortable with the idea of racial mixing."

Why did the President, the son of a white mother from the U.S. and black father from Kenya, check only one box? Various explanations are offered in the piece, among them the fact that questions about Obama's "blackness" have dogged him since before the 2008 campaign. Rodriguez also pointed out the concerns of some black civil rights activists who fear that if more people were to identify as multiracial, the number of those identifying as black, and their corresponding influence, would decrease.

The comments from readers show that there is no clear answer as to why people identify one way or another. One's particular race - and how one is perceived in society as a result - plays a part. More than anything, the comments, some more polite than others, prove that a multiracial society doesn't translate into a post-racial one. Here are just a few, unedited save for one typo:

"Importer" wrote:

Let's do this little test--if you were walking down the street alone at night and Obama was approaching you from the opposite direction, what race would you pick for him on the census form? I think we all know the answer; to pretend otherwise is just foolish. He is black and he knows it.

"Debiro1" wrote:
President Obama grew up during a time when you didn't have that option.  So he's supposed to change his thinking overnight?  And we weren't there to see how he was treated as he grew up.  He himself has said that his maternal grandmother used the "n-" word from time to time. Hearing that from a black person has an effect so I know good and well hearing it from a white one has an even deeper one, especially when you are related to that person.  If I knew nothing about his background and saw him for the first time, I would not assume he is racially mixed.  He looks black to me and apparently he feels it.  Lord knows he sure has been treated like he's 100% Negro.

"Sir topham hat" wrote:"
Wou(l)d this type of conversation occur if the President was Asian and White, Latino and White, or any other mixture? Probably not? It seems as if the person is a mixture of black and white, society demands that he or she must be bi-racial like the president. However, Jessica Alba, who is clearly mexican and white, claims that she is a latina, not latina and white. Salma Hayek, who is mexican and lebanese, claims that she is mexican/latina and viewed as such. No one has ever referred to her as bi-racial.

Apollo Ohno, who is asian and white, claims he is asian. Again, no one has ever referred to him as bi-racial. It is funny that people say that Jessica alba's husband, Cash warren, is bi-racial, but Jessica is not. Really! Hell, Bruce Lee was asian and white, yet everyone views him as asian, not bi-racial.

"DGates" wrote:
He can put down 'multi-race' and people will scream, "No, you're black!"

He can put down 'black' and people will scream, "No, you're multi-race!"