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The American multiracial movement is best known for its advocates’ efforts throughout the 1990s to add a “multiracial” category to the 2000 census. By the end of that decade, the federal government, along with a number of state governments, had not only devoted substantial resources to investigating the issue; eventually it also agreed to document race in a new way. Although a multiracial category was not added to the census in 2000, for the first time ever a “mark one or more” (MOOM) option—allowing individuals to identify officially with as many groups as they saw fit—appeared on the form.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is responsible for coordinating the activities of all federal statistical agencies, including the Census Bureau. Responding to ongoing criticism of the census and to rapid change in the racial and ethnic makeup of the country, the OMB conducted a comprehensive review of the racial categorization system from 1993 to 1997. While a variety of issues were considered, the review eventually focused on the multiracial category proposal. Before the review, identification with more than one race was not allowed. After the review, the OMB gave everyone the option to identify with as many races as they wished.
The experience of parents registering children from the growing number of interracial unions for school loomed large in the OMB decision. Many of these parents felt that a monoracial census forced unacceptable and avoidable decisions on individuals and families to identify with one parent and deny the other. The issue of multiracial recognition on government forms helped to galvanize the multiracial movement, which started with a handful of groups that formed on the West Coast in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1988 a number of these local adult organizations joined forces to create the Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA), whose political objective was to push the OMB to add a multiracial category on government forms.
Soon after the establishment of the AMEA, two other organizations claiming national memberships and networks also came to the fore: Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) and A Place For Us (APFU). The three groups’ orientations and goals were divergent from the beginning; however, they shared the conviction that it was inaccurate and improper to force multiracial Americans into monoracial categories. On this basis, the groups often worked together during the 1990s. AMEA took the position that multiracial people should have the right to claim their entire heritage and embrace their total identity. One means to that end, AMEA maintained, was multiracial recognition on the census. For Project RACE, the main objective was to get a multiracial classification on all school, employment, state, federal, local, census, and medical forms requiring racial data so that multiracial children would not have to suffer the adverse consequences of being regarded as “Other.” Finally, APFU viewed the “support and encouragement of interaction between anyone involved with interracial relationships” as their purpose and a “color-blind society” as their goal. Together the three represented the backbone of the multiracial category effort. In the mid-1990s, during the height of the movement’s activity, there were thirty active adult-based multiracial organizations across the United States and approximately the same number of student organizations on college campuses.
Over the course of that decade, civil rights groups increasingly came to perceive the multiracial movement as a threat. The civil rights community feared that a multiracial category would dilute the count of minority populations, and—although in actuality this prospect triggered different concerns for different civil rights organizations—their shared position was that a multiracial identifier would undercut existing civil rights safeguards. Multiracial advocates, however, saw compulsory singlerace categories as an outdated response to a growing multiracial reality and maintained that their recognition would come at no adverse civil rights cost.
In MOOM and related stipulations, the OMB tried to strike a balance between capturing increasing diversity and providing the statistics necessary to measure discrimination and enforce the nation’s civil rights laws. Even so, the implications of MOOM remain unclear and the circumstances invite further challenge. For instance, in order to distinguish those persons who selected a single race— say Asian—from those who selected Asian and another race, groups were reported in ranges from minimum to maximum sizes: This created alternate—yet official— counts of racial groups. As a result, the denominator is debatable. Moreover, allowing people to mark more than one race resulted in a total of fifty-seven possible multiplerace combinations in 2000. Add to that the five official single-race categories plus a sixth option, “Some Other Race,” and the tally increases to sixty-three racial categories. Because each racial category is also divided by a question asking respondents if they are Hispanic, the constellation of race/ethnic mixtures swells to a universe of 126 possibilities. As a result, the proliferation of categories could itself complicate civil rights enforcement efforts. The decision to allow people to identify with multiple racial heritages has introduced new data, questions, and controversies into an already volatile debate on race-conscious public policy.
- Alonso, William, and Paul Starr, 1987. The Politics of Numbers. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Perlmann, Joel, and Mary Waters, 2002. The New Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Individuals. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Skerry, Peter. Counting on the Census? Race, Group Identity, and the Evasion of Politics. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- Williams, Kim 2006. Mark One or More: Civil Rights in Multiracial America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
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