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New “Multi-Race” Box Addresses Universities’ Concerns, and Raises New Questions

In a nod to America’s growing multiracial population, the U.S. Department of Education endorsed earlier this week a new system that would allow students to pick more than one “race” box on college applications — and in doing so has unleashed new questions that could have serious policy ramifications.

After nine years of work, the Education Department released draft guidelines intended to help colleges collect and report information on race and ethnicity, and have asked colleges to send feedback. The colleges, which have long struggled with how to classify mixed-race students, overwhelmingly welcomed the guidelines.

“I expect colleges to be pleased because the guidelines certainly are appropriate, reasonable and do limit the burden on categorizing,” says Eugene Anderson, associate director of national initiatives at the American Council on Education. “They make sense; they respect peoples’ individual notion of racial identity, which is important.”

The new system would allow students who identify themselves by more than one race to check more than one box. Those students will be reported as “multiracial,” and the Department of Education will not require colleges to detail their racial combination, as the U.S. Census does. 

The group “Asian and Pacific Islander” will be separated into two categories. Hispanic and Latin students will be asked to first identify themselves as Hispanic or Latin, and then given the opportunity to check a second box specifying whether they are Black, Caucasian or other.

Education Department officials acknowledge that many more concerns will inevitably arise in this complex, and often political, issue. For example, will the system result in the apparent decline of some demographic groups? Will colleges aiming for a certain student quota be confused by the anonymous ‘multirace’ category? And is the United States nearing the point where children are so ethnically mixed that race — and the connotations attached to it — has become complicated to the point of irrelevancy?

“When you say out, of 17 million college students, 5 percent are multiracial — well what are they? You don’t know where the new people are from,” Anderson says. “It gets tricky.”

It is expected that American Indian, Black and Asian numbers will appear to decline, as some of those students will check more than one box and be reported as multiracial. The number of Hispanic boxes checked is expected to increase.

In the 2000 U.S. Census, 6.8 million people picked more than one racial or ethnic category, and nearly half of them were under the age of 18 — indicating that our society is becoming more and more difficult to divide into Caucasian, Black, Hispanic and “Asian and Pacific Islander.”

The Education Department began working on the issue after several groups criticized the department for expecting students to come in neat racial boxes. Department officials say they hopes to reign in many of the students who refused to answer the question, whether because they did not see their mixed identity represented or out of protest to the narrow confines of the question. Still, many experts suspect that White students avoid the question out of fear that their non-minority status will set back their admissions chances. 

Many students’ background remains a mystery. The number of students in higher education for whom race is unknown increased by 100 percent, to almost 1 million students, from 1991 until today, according to Inside Higher Education. Their true identity, and their motivation for hiding their racial identity, is the subject of much debate among demographers.

The department intends to begin implementing the change beginning this school year, and is requiring all educational institutions to finish implementing it by 2009.

— By Christina Asquith


Reader comments on this story:

There are currently 3 reader comments on this story:

“why is it necessary?”
While I applaud updating the ‘check box’ list to include “multirace”, why is it necessary? Why not simply allow more than one check box to be ticked? Some learners will choose 1, some 2, some 4, some perhaps more. Rather than worry about “What makes up the multirace check box?” allow the already existing check boxes to help define as the student wishes. Perhaps not as ‘clean’ as the extra option, but far more legitimate for statistics and trend-following. Should there still be an ‘other’ box, perhaps — but let’s not oversimplify by trying to have a catch-all. Eventually, maybe, the ‘race’ segment won’t be necessary or meaningful, but while it is still considered so, don’t deny the aspects that make up the multiracial category — embrace them!

-Julia Brandwin-Glait

“no one should have to pick what they are”
If someone is multi-cultural/multi-racial…that’s what they are. Why do we have to freak out because they don’t claim black, white, orange…?  No one should have to pick “what they are.” If I am multi-blooded it is all mixed as one in my heart. It is just who I am. Don’t ask me to side with dad, mom or grandpa…This is the most divisive issue on one hand, while, on the other hand, my blood clearly says we are one…in me and evidently millions of others.  The only ones freaked out are the racists who refuse to identify with anyone but their own cultures and make good money doing it.  I think it comes down to the color–green doesn’t it? Who gets funding for this, or special privileges for that? Sorry a “mixed breed” or “half breed” like me messes up your game.

-Bruce Donaldson

“hereditary racial and ethnic castes”
Many Americans resent being required to identify their racial and religious preference.  In addition the categories have expanded to include so many ethnicities that students look for their own (Irish for example or Italian) and when they don’t see it they mark “other.” 
    Of course this is all a numbers game.   People work the system.  If they can claim preference through connection to a preferred group such as Cajuns in Louisiana or “Native Americans” -for English-speaking people with dubious Indian heritage they will.
     In real life people tend to identify with one group or another but in reality intermarriage is the norm. My own children come from different backgrounds and can claim, with honesty, at least two boxes.  I encourage them to do so because it probably will help them.
     If we are ever to achieve a color blind society we need to stop promoting the creation of hereditary racial and ethnic castes.
     The motivation for individuals to not declare their race or ethnicity is due to privacy concerns and the fact that Asian and Caucasian groups perceive the fact that ethnic quotas hurt their scholastic and career opportunities.  

     Hereditary castes are undemocratic and violate our tradition of equality before the law.  They should be declared unconstitutional.

-Richard Munro

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