WASHINGTON – The Census Bureau finally recognized what many in Maryland noticed just by looking around — that the country is becoming more of a racial melting pot every day.
In 2000, when the Census allowed people for the first time to identify themselves as more than one race, 103,587 people in Maryland did so. That was about 2 percent of the state population, just under the 2.4 percent nationally who identified themselves as multiracial.
“We wanted to capture increased racial and ethnic diversity in the country,” said Claudette Bennett, chief of the Census’ racial statistics branch.
They did that. Because people can claim two or more races, the change increased possible racial categories from the previous six — black, white, Asian, native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaskan Native, and other — to 63 possible variations.
Experts say the new classifications could influence everything from business strategies to social programs to the political clout of some minority groups. They are also likely to raise new problems.
“How do you analyze data when you have 63 different possible classifications? Agencies are going to be struggling with this for a very long time,” said Isabelle Horon, director of the Maryland Vital Statistics Administration.
Horon, the former chair of a state task force on multiracial designations, said Maryland has been using such categories to classify residents since 1998.
“This became an issue in Maryland because of problems in the schools,” she said. “Parents were enrolling bi-racial kids in school and could only select one race. They felt that a tiny child was being forced to choose between their parents in terms of what their race was.”
Horon said the multiple-race categories have helped to more fully reflect the state’s demographic make-up. She said that increase is reflected in the fact that 7 percent of babies born in 2002 had parents of different races, compared to less than 1 percent in the 1970s.
That blurring of racial lines is pushing some businesses to focus on other factors when they target customers. Andy Dumaine, partner and creative director of the Baltimore-based ad firm Campbell Group Inc., said economics and personal income, not race, matter most when it comes to consumer trends.
“There are more groups emerging in America, but from a marketing point of view, they’re coming closer together,” said Dumaine. “Many consumer motivations are shared across demographics.
“Everybody has the same basic needs,” he said. “To feel like they’re raising their family properly, providing for them adequately, driving safe cars, eating healthy foods — those are demographically blind needs.”
Multiple categories could prove more challenging in the area of civil rights, as the definition of minority becomes more subjective.
“What you really want is an observer race . . . for civil rights purposes,” said Roderick Harrison, a demographer with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “What we really want to know is not how you see yourself, but how the employer or landlord or bank lender sees you.”
Harrison said what while there are “political arguments in which the sheer size of the populations matter” for minority groups, the political clout of those groups “has more to do with voter turn-out than with actual numbers.”
For larger minority communities, like African Americans, the number of people who might be lost to a multirace classification will likely not be big enough to make a difference.
“I doubt that there is any politician who is going to look at the (new) numbers and change the agenda items for black constituencies,” said Harrison, noting that only a fraction of the African American community in Maryland reported black plus some other race.
He said it is too early to say if the new categories will create new groups with new agendas — although the Census decision to allow multiple-race claims was more or less a response to just such a group.
“Some of this change was the rise of a population and the growth of the number of people in the multirace category who say, ‘I have a more complex background, I feel more complex and I want people to know and acknowledge that,'” Harrison said.
Because the racial categories are self-reported, however, Harrison and others say it will be difficult to characterize any new racial groups that may emerge.
While some people may truly identify with more than one group, others who identify strongly with one culture or another may check off more than one racial category because they felt it best represented their personal heritage.
“There is no well-defined population out there who the data accurately reflects or even approximately reflects,” Harrison said. “It reflects the answers of people who answer for a hodgepodge of different reasons.”