The Clinton administration announced Wednesday it will allow mixed-race Americans for the first time to check off more than one racial category for themselves on the 2000 Census.
After four years of heated cultural debate, the new policy is intended to permit a growing number of mixed-race Americans to acknowledge their varied heritage.
The government's new vision of racial identification ultimately will apply to every kind of federal data collection, from the census to annual household surveys conducted by the government, school registration forms and home mortgage applications. It will first be tried in census dress rehearsal next spring in Sacramento, Calif., 11 counties in South Carolina and an Indian reservation in Wisconsin.
A competing proposal to create a general "multiracial" classification was rejected by the administration in favor of the multiple check-off system that will enable mixed-race Americans to report their heritage in greater detail.
"We are not closing the door on the expression of multiracial heritage, we are allowing people to express their multiracial heritage in whatever way they view themselves," said Franklin Raines, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, in unveiling the new policy.
The administration effectively adopted most of the recommendations made unanimously in July by a 30-agency task force assembled to address multiracial Americans, many of whom have objected to the government's attempt to wedge them into a rigid category by insisting they identify themselves as members of a single race. A flood of public comment poured into the White House after the recommendations were made, officials said.
"The public participation is particularly important because it reminds us constantly that there are people behind the numbers and for many, this is a deeply personal issue," said Sally Katzen, an OMB administrator.
All federal agencies will be expected to conform to the new standards as soon as possible, but not later than Jan. 1, 2003, officials said.
Under the new standards, people will be asked to "mark one or more" of the following racial categories: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White.
A separate question pertaining to ethnicity will be expanded from just the word Hispanic to "Hispanic or Latino," based on research showing that Latino is a more popular word in the western United States.
Other elements of the new policy include:
Black will now read "Black or African American."
What was once the category "Asian or Pacific Islander" will now be divided. The government reasoned that under the old system, native Hawaiians were being lost in the category dominated by Asians and will constitute a more representative number in the new grouping.
An ethnic category for Arab or Middle Eastern will not be added, although the government has decided to give the idea further study.
The term Alaska Native will replace Eskimo and Aleut.
There will no longer be a race category for "other."
The old policy of single-race checkoff came under fire after the 1990 census when critics attacked it as out of synch with an America racially blended by immigration and mixed marriages. The Clinton administration launched a review of the race and ethnicity categories in 1993, which produced the revised policy.
Most civil rights and advocacy groups had opposed a separate multiracial classification out of concern it would drain the numbers of people who identify with a particular race.
Some of these groups applauded the administration's decision to reject that distinction but were waiting cautiously for details on how the government plans to tabulate and report the new information it gathers.
Considerable debate lies ahead if reaction to the administration's initial ideas is any indicator. One suggestion involved counting as separate categories the more popular racial combinations expected to be reported _ such as black and white or white and Asian. The more obscure combinations could then be lumped together in a multiple-racial category for purposes of tabulation.
Offering only loose suggestions on how the new data should be counted, the administration plans to release firm guidelines by spring. The issue is critical to civil rights groups because federal data on race and ethnicity is the basis for monitoring access in housing, education, employment and other areas vulnerable to discrimination. It also is used in health research, since some races are more susceptible to certain diseases and cures than are others.
"Our concern is with making sure we have access to information for delivery of services and programs to our population," said Eric Rodriguez, policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. "We're looking at this very cautiously. The key is tabulation now."
Some advocacy groups warned that whatever pride people derive from reporting a rare mixed heritage could be offset by a loss of political clout if too many groups splinter off.
"You are most effective when you can create a coalition and a community voice," said Gautan Rana, legal fellow at the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium in Washington. "Who will advocate for the "multiple race' category? What civil rights organization is out there protecting their rights?"