(June 2005) Multiracial Americans have always been a part of the U.S. population. In colonial times, multiple-race children were born of unions between American Indians, Europeans, and Africans. Early U.S. population censuses included multiple-race categories such as mulatto and “mixed-blood” Indians. The 2000 Census also acknowledged interracial Americans by allowing U.S. residents to choose more than one race, and about 7 million people did so.

Social acceptance of multiple-race Americans and of marriages across racial boundaries has varied over the country’s history, but prejudice and discrimination have been constants. The last few decades, however, have witnessed an apparent sea change in Americans’ racial attitudes. Many articles on multiracial Americans, interracial couples, and multiracial families appeared in the mass media, some generated by the new 2000 Census option to choose more than one race. New surveys of racial attitudes suggested dramatic improvements in American race relations. According to a Gallup poll conducted at the end of 2003, 86 percent of black, 79 percent of Hispanic, and 66 percent of white respondents would accept a child or grandchild marrying someone of a different race. The percentage of whites who favored laws against marriages between blacks and whites declined from 35 percent in the 1970s to 10 percent in the 2000s. And in another survey conducted in 2003, 77 percent of respondents agreed that it was all right for blacks and whites to date each other.

Interracial marriage has increased across most racial groups and, although they are still the exception to the norm, these interracial marriages are generating a growing population of multiracial Americans. Marriage between Hispanics and non-Hispanics, already quite common, has further contributed to changing racial and ethnic boundaries in America. The shift to allow Americans to identify with more than one race in the 2000 Census was both a reflection of and response to these trends.

Of the 281 million people enumerated in the 2000 Census, more than 2.4 percent, or 7 million people, reported more than one race. Several observers believe that these figures underestimate the number of Americans who come from multiracial backgrounds. Some people may not be aware of their multiracial backgrounds, while others choose to identify with just one race even when they are aware of their multiple origins. Many minority advocacy groups advised their members to report only one race (the minority race) in the 2000 Census because these groups feared a loss of political clout if their population total was eroded by people choosing more than one race.

Parents were less hesitant to report their children as multiracial, reflecting recent increases in racial intermarriages as well as the greater acceptance of multiracial identities. In the 2000 Census, 42 percent of persons who reported more than one race were under age 18, compared with 25 percent of those reporting a single race.

Sharon M. Lee is professor of sociology and director of the Center for Health & Social Inequality Research, Department of Sociology, Portland State University.

Barry Edmonston is professor in the School of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the Population Research Center, Portland State University.