The following excerpt is from the report “Who Chooses to Choose Two? Multiracial Identification and Census 2000,” by Sonya M. Tafoya, Hans Johnson, and Laura E. Hill, and published by the Russell Sage Foundation and the Population Reference Bureau. This report is one of several in the new series The American People, which sets the results of Census 2000 in context and collectively provides a portrait of the American people in a new century. Each report is written by an author or team of authors selected for their expertise with the data and their broad understanding of the implications of demographic trends. Reynolds Farley and John Haaga are the series editors.

(June 2004) Racial identity in the United States is first established within the context of families. In the census, parents report the racial identity of their children. To what extent do parents of different races identify their children as multiracial? Do patterns of multiracial reporting depend on the specific race of each parent? In the most common intermarriage case where one parent is white and one is nonwhite, does reporting depend on whether it is the mother or the father who is nonwhite?

One of the most striking results of the 2000 Census is that most interracial couples do not report their children as multiracial. Overall, we estimated that less than half (44 percent) of children living with parents of different races are identified as multiracial. The proportions are especially low for two of the largest biracial groups, with only 13 percent of American Indian/white couples and only 3 percent of Latino SOR/white couples identifying their children as biracial (see Table 1). (SOR denotes “some other race.” A “/” denotes the racial identification of married couples. For example, a couple in which one partner is black and the other partner is Asian is described as a black/Asian couple.)

Table 1
Children Identified as Multiracial, by Parent’s Race, 2000

Parent’s race Percent
Black/white parents
AIAN/white parents
Asian/white parents
SOR, Hispanic/white parents
Both parents multiracial

Note: Predicted percentages based on author’s regression models.
Source: Author’s calculations using Census 2000 1 % Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS).

The likelihood of reporting a child as multiracial depends very much on the specific racial combination of the parents. Children of Asian/white and black/white interracial couples are far more likely to report their child as multiracial than American Indian/white, non-Latino SOR/white, and Latino SOR/white parents. However, even among Asian/white and black/white couples, only about half report their children as multiracial. Among black/white couples, most who do not report their children as multiracial report them as black. Among Asian/white and Latino SOR/white couples, most who do not report their children as multiracial report them as white. American Indian/white couples are about evenly divided between reporting their children as only American Indian or only white. Just as the levels of multiracial reporting vary between the racial combinations of the parents, we believe that the reasons for multiracial reporting are particular to each combination of multiracial parents.

The very low levels of multiracial reporting among American Indian/white couples may be due to the nature of the American Indian population in the United States. That population includes a large number of people of mixed ancestry with varying degrees of strength in an AIAN identity.1 Those who strongly identify as American Indian are likely to report their children as monoracial American Indian, even if one parent is white. Most American Indian tribes allow as members individuals who have only one “full-blooded” grandparent.2 Thus, an AIAN parent who has strong ancestral connections to a tribe is likely to report his or her child as American Indian regardless of spouse ethnicity. Those who do not strongly identify as AIAN, an apparently large and perhaps growing share of the AIAN population in the United States, and who have a child with a white spouse, report the child as white.

The low levels of multiracial reporting among Latino mixed-race SOR/white couples can be attributed to the prominence of Latino identity rather than racial identity. For many Latinos, the racial categories on the census are not meaningful. Large proportions of Latinos respond that they are SOR, and even slightly larger proportions respond that they are white. A large majority of Latinos would prefer to have “Hispanic, Latino, or of Spanish origin” added to the list of racial categories used in the census.3 For many Latinos, the choice between SOR and white is somewhat arbitrary. Choosing both identities for their children would be superfluous, since the Latino identity is most salient.

Couples most likely to identify their children as multiracial are those in which both parents are multiracial: 83 percent of such couples report their children to be more than one race. Although such couples are a small share of all married couples, their children represent a substantial share of all multiracial children. Indeed, 25 percent of multiracial children in the United States have parents that both identify as multiracial. In contrast, only 1 percent of all children in married-couple households have two multiracial parents. Even having only one multiracial parent leads to a relatively high probability of a child being identified as multiracial. Altogether, over half of multiracial children have at least one multiracial parent.


  1. Matthew Snipp, “American Indians: Clues to the Future of Other Racial Groups,” in The New Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Individuals, ed. Joel Perlmann and Mary C. Waters (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002).
  2. Russell Thornton, “Tribal Membership Requirements and the Demography of Old and New Native Americans,” in Changing Numbers, Changing Needs, ed. Gary D. Sandefur, Ronald R. Rindfuss, and Barney Cohen (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1996).
  3. Clyde R. Tucker et al., Testing Methods of Collecting Racial and Ethnic Information: Results of the Current Population Survey Supplement on Race and Ethnicity,” Statistical Notes, no. 40 (1996).