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A Biracial Princess Sheds Light on U.S. Demographics


Mark Jones - Cropped from Flickr version: royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has put the spotlight on the former actress now known as the Duchess of Sussex. The conversations around Markle’s identity as a biracial American mirror how the U.S. Census Bureau has handled terminology and rules for the survey’s racial categories over the years.

Markle, whose father is white and mother is black, has frequently commented on her mixed-race identity and the prejudices and confusion that she has faced. “Being biracial paints a blurred line that is equal parts staggering and illuminating,” she wrote in an essay for Elle UK, adding “I wasn't black enough for the black roles and I wasn't white enough for the white ones, leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon who couldn't book a job.”

Back when Markle set off for college in 1999, the U.S. Census Bureau was gearing up to count multiple racial identities on the decennial survey for the first time in over a century. Until then, respondents had to pick just one race category, but in 2000, people could select or write in multiple ones. According to the 2000 Census, 6,826,228 people self-identified as having two or more races, making up 2.4 percent of the population. Of that group, roughly one third also identified as Hispanic.

Check out these side-by-side maps to see how the mixed-race population has changed in the US between Census 2000 and today (based on the 2012-16 American Community Survey data).

Markle grew up in Hollywood, CA, and then moved to the less diverse Evanston, IL, to attend Northwestern University. Zoom into these map locations to see more about how the multi-race population has changed over the years.

Looking at the racial composition of the country, the mixed-race category has grown by a third from 2.4 percent to 3.2 percent of the population. As of the most recent American Community Survey (2016), 10,426,435 people self-identified as having two or more races.

The multi-race population has experienced a lot of growth but still remains small compared to other race categories. However, looking at the ages of those with two or more races selected reveals that nearly half (46.2 percent) of them are under 18 years old. With more kids identifying as having two or more races, the multi-race population will likely keep increasing, following in the footsteps of Meghan Markle.  

The Census Bureau’s Historical Race Categories

While the U.S. Census added the two or more races category to keep up with the times, in the past, the Census’ racial classifications have also illustrated America’s entrenched racism and racist policies. In the first census from 1790, the population was categorized into “white” (80.7 percent) and “nonwhite” (19.3 percent). The census used the same two categories (sometimes “nonwhite” was called “colored”) for decades. In 1860, “Indian” (Native American) and “Asian” (specifically Chinese) were added. Categories became more specific approaching the 20th century.

The following instructions guided the 1890 decennial census for the race category:

Write white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian, according to the color or race of the person enumerated. Be particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons. The word "black" should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; "mulatto," those persons who have from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; "quadroon," those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and "octoroon," those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood.

Back then long before we received census forms in the mail, enumerators would visit each household and assess what people’s racial identities were using these guidelines. The Census Bureau stopped using the terms "quadroon" or "octoroon" on the survey but did use "mulatto" again in 1910 and 1920.

Nowadays, instead of the enumerator determining someone’s background, people self-identify their race, filling out the form themselves.

When President Barack Obama publicly filled out the 2010 census form, he marked down that he was black. He could have answered black, white, or both. He chose the response that best fit his personal identity.

See also an explanation of how the Census Bureau counts Native Americans.

(Photo of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry cropped from Flickr version: CC BY 2.0)

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