By Kate Alexander
WASHINGTON – Less than 2 percent of Marylanders claimed a multiracial heritage in the census last year, the first time the government allowed people to identify themselves by more than one race.
Maryland’s 2 percent was slightly below the national level of people who identified themselves as multiracial, 2.4 percent so far, and well below the 10 percent of Americans who demographers estimate are actually of mixed race.
“The multiracial population in actuality is much higher than 2.4 percent,” said Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau. But the people who are multiracial “do not view themselves that way.”
But at least 20 Marylanders took full advantage of the multiracial option, checking all six racial categories for their heritage, including “other,” according to census data released Monday. The Census Bureau reports that, nationwide, 823 people checked all six categories.
Census 2000 was the first opportunity for individuals to check one or more of the six racial categories on the form — white, black, Asian, American Indian/Alaskan, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and other.
Allowing a choice of more than one race was intended to reflect the growing diversity of the nation — there are 63 possible racial category combinations under the new system.
Supporters saw it as a long-overdue step toward recognizing that many children come from parents of different races, and often pointed to golfer Tiger Woods, who is of African-American, Asian, White and American Indian, as a prime example.
Others feared the addition would dilute the political power of minorities.
In the end, it appears to have been relatively insignificant.
The multiple racial categories are “very helpful,” said Hilary Shelton, because they enable people to “define what they are.”
“This is how people see themselves,” said Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “It is also important that we see our nation in full-life color, instead of just black and white.”
Shelton said he is confident that the new categories will have no ill effect on the allocation of federal resources to minority populations. He anticipates that the category will become increasingly more valuable because the bulk of people who are identified as multiracial are young people.
Montgomery County had the most multiracial responses in Maryland, with 3.4 percent or 30,117 people, followed by Prince George’s County, with 2.6 percent or 20,884 people. Those counties were also the most diverse overall in Maryland.
Mather said that the number of multiple-race Marylanders may be low because the state has relatively small American Indian and Asian populations, the two racial groups that tend to intermarry most frequently.
He said he will wait for the California census figures to be released before determining whether the new figures are useful, but urban geographer Charles Christian sees no need to delay his dismissal of the tally.
Christian says the results are useless for allocating federal resources and complicate without providing any benefit.
“This category puzzled me from the start,” said Christian, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in race and urban populations.
“Clearly, it is not representative (of the larger population) except for a few individuals who have some reason. . .to identify themselves as such.”