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Number of multiracial Americans signals shifting social norms

A growing number of Americans consider themselves multiracial, and that number is projected to rise for years to come, new research suggests.

In a nationally representative survey, about 7 percent of American adults say they identify with two or more races, according to the report that Pew Research Center published today. That adds up to about 17 million people.

“This is a very diverse group, and it’s hard to really characterize them,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center.

The survey adds to existing long-term Census Bureau data about multiracial identity in America. Over the last four decades, multiracial babies in two-parent households have gone from making up one percent of births in 1970 to 10 percent of births in 2013, according to Census data, the report said.

Before 2000, respondents could only select one race on Census surveys. The change only came in 1997 after the Office of Management and Budget decided to introduce the new option for the next Census “after noting evidence of increasing numbers of children from interracial unions and the need to measure the increased diversity in the United States,” according to the Census.

One explanation for the rising number is a shift in social norms, Parker explained.

“We’re in the midst of change,” she said. “The public is very accepting of interracial marriage now. You go back 50 years, and it wasn’t even legal in certain states. It’s just a much more common experience for people.”

In 1967, this change was only starting to come into focus. That is when the Supreme Court decided, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, that people of different races should be allowed to marry each other. Before that decision, a number of states considered such unions illegal.

Attitudes are shifting, but many multiracial individuals say they still experience discrimination because of their racial background.

For example, 57 percent of survey respondents who identified themselves as having both white and black racial heritage said they felt they received poor customer service when eating out or shopping because of their racial background. African-American respondents were just as likely to report this form of discrimination.

Overall, only 4 percent of respondents say their racial background held them back while three-quarters of these respondents said it made no difference in their life.

Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of individuals with diverse racial heritage do not consider themselves to be multiracial, the data suggest. Instead, they are drawn to and choose to embrace one part of their racial identity, Parker said, especially after going through a coming-of-age experience, such as going to college.

“Racial identity is fluid,” she said. “It speaks to how these things can change.”