Black or biracial? Census forces a choice

Associated Press | 4/27/2010, 8:06 p.m.

There were 784,764 U.S. residents who described their race as white and black in the last census. But that number didn’t include Laura Martin, whose father is black and whose mother is white.

“I’ve always just checked ‘black’ on my form,” said Martin, a 29-year-old university employee in Las Vegas. She grew up surrounded by black family and friends, listening to black music and active in black causes — “So I’m black.”

Nor did it include Steve Bumbaugh, a 43-year-old foundation director in Los Angeles, who also has a black father and white mother. “It’s not as if I’d have been able to drink out of the white and colored water fountains during Jim Crow,” he said. “And I most assuredly would have been a slave. As far as I’m concerned, that makes me black.”

Last Friday was the deadline to mail back the 2010 census forms. Although the results are expected to show an increase in the number of multiracial people, some African Americans with one white parent are deciding to simply “stay black.”

This is only the second census to allow people to identify themselves by more than one race. About 7 million people, or 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, chose that option in 2000.

It’s impossible to know how many of the 35 million people counted as “black alone” in 2000 have a white parent. But it’s clear that the decision to check one box — or more — on the census is often steeped in history, culture, pride and mentality.

Exhibit A is President Barack Obama. He declined to check the box for “white” on his census form, despite his mother’s well-known whiteness.

Obama offered no explanation, but Leila McDowell has an idea.

“Put a hoodie on him and have him walk down an alley, and see how biracial he is then,” said McDowell, vice president of communications for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“Being black in this country is a political construct,” she said. “Even though my father is white and I have half his genes, when I apply for a loan, when I walk into the car lot, when I apply for a job — they don’t see me as half white. They see me as black. If you have any identifying characteristics, you’re black.”

There is evidence, though, that while some may be resistant to the idea of identifying as multiracial, white attitudes are moving in that direction. In a January poll by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of white people said Obama is “mixed race” and 24 percent said he is black. In contrast, 55 percent of black people said Obama is black and 34 percent said he is mixed.

This also may represent a new twist on the “one drop” concept, which for centuries held that even one black ancestor made a person black. Now a brown-skinned man is president, and, for many white people, one white parent means you are NOT black.

But the logic is simple for Ryan Graham, the brown-skinned son of a white-black marriage who defines himself as multiracial.