The Rise of Mixed Parentage: A Sociological and Demographic Phenomenon to Be Reckoned with (Brenden Beck and Duygu Basaran Sahin)


1. Ethno-racially mixed parentage is rising in frequency, creating a strong challenge to both census classification schemes and, indeed, to common conceptions of ethnicity and race. Majority (white) and minority (nonwhite or Hispanic) parentage predominates among individuals with mixed-family backgrounds. Yet in public presentations of census data and population projections, individuals with mixed backgrounds are generally classified as nonwhite. We analyze 2013 American Community Survey data and summarize the results of important studies to argue that individuals from mixed majority-minority backgrounds resemble whites more than they do minorities in terms of some key social characteristics and experiences, such as where they grow up and their social affiliations as adults. Those with a BLACK parent are an important exception. An implication of this analysis is that census classification practices for mixed individuals risk distorting conceptions of the current population, especially its youthful portion, and promoting misunderstandings of ethno-racial change.

2. Keywords: ethnicity and race; ethno-racial mixing; population change; diversity; census data; population projections


3. Ethno-racial mixing is nothing new in the United States--it was observed as early as the colonial era (Gordon 1964). In the post--World War II period, the rise of marriage on a large scale across ethnic and religious lines among whites played a leading role in the story of mass assimilation, which forged a white mainstream that included the DESCENDANTs of late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century immigrants from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe (Alba and Nee 2003). Throughout American history, moreover, whites' dominant status has been expressed in sexual encounters across racial lines, particularly between white men and minority women, which have produced children. When these children were mixed white and BLACK, they were consigned to the AFRICAN American population by the so-called one-drop rule. When the children were mixed white and American Indian, they had a greater chance of being absorbed into the white population (see Liebler, this volume)

4. We find that 14 to 15 percent of U.S.-born infants have parents of different races or one Hispanic and one non-Hispanic parent. . . .Children who are white and Asian or white and BLACK are each about a ninth of the total. Among the remaining majority-minority mixtures, the dominant combination involves a white parent paired with a partly white (i.e., mixedrace) parent--in other words, these are children who may have three white grandparents. This combination constitutes about an eighth of the total.

5. The mixed-family backgrounds of these infants are not always reflected in the ways their parents report them on the census or the Census Bureau treats them in their reports. . . . In the case of children who are BLACK and Hispanic, the distribution is even more lopsided: more than 80 percent appear as Hispanic, and 13 percent are reported as non-Hispanic BLACK.

6. The children who have a white and a BLACK parent are the least likely to be reported as white. Children who have one white and one partly white parent are the most likely to be reported as white, but only 30 percent are.

7. The growing population of mixed children is creating heterogeneity within major ethno-racial populations, especially the minority ones. For instance, of the children with an Asian parent, about 30 percent also have a non-Asian parent. The figures are similar for children with BLACK or Hispanic parents.. . .

8. The social identities, affiliations, and contexts of Americans from mixed majority-minority backgrounds are on the whole closer to those of whites than to those of minorities, with partly BLACK persons an exception

9. To begin, partly white infants appear on the whole to be growing up in circumstances similar to those of infants with only white parents; infants of white and BLACK parentage are the major exceptions to this generalization.. ..

10. Families with the combination of white and Asian parents are the most affluent of all types, with median family incomes (above $100,000 regardless of which parent is white and which Asian) higher than those of either white- or Asian-only families ($72,800 and $90,000, respectively). By contrast, families with BLACK fathers and white mothers, the most common BLACK-white pairing, are only slightly advantaged in income terms compared to families of two BLACK parents ($45,000 vs. $40,000).

11. Since income is related to housing, this broad profile of similarity to the situations of white families, with variations according to the precise mix of the parents of the infants, carries over into residential space. Distinguishing crudely between “outer-urban and suburban homeowners” versus “inner-city renters” (we are limited by the categories available in microdata; see Alba, Beck, and Sahin 2018), we find that white families are much more concentrated in the former--about half there versus a fifth in the latter category. For the BLACK and Hispanic families with infants, the proportions are reversed.

12. The mixed white and Asian families are even more concentrated in the outer-urban and suburban owner category than are the all-white families. White and Hispanic families and also white and racially mixed ones are found considerably more in these advantaged contexts than in urban renter ones, but their distribution between the two is not as lopsided as in the all-white case. White and BLACK families are more often in the urban renter category than in the other, and when the father is BLACK--the more common case--their distribution between the two is no different from that of all-Black families.

13. Individuals who are partly BLACK are quite distinct in these ways (see also Rocquemore and Brunsma 2007). Individuals who are white and BLACK show a stronger sense of identity and affiliation with BLACKs than with whites. These mixed BLACK individuals believe they have a lot in common with other BLACKs and feel very accepted by them. They think that casual observers are more likely to see them as BLACK than as white or multiracial. The distinctiveness of BLACK ancestry for mixing highlights the continuing power of antiBlack racism in the United States (Alba and Foner 2015).

14. The Pew Survey of Multiracial Adults is also informative about social milieus of adults from mixed racial backgrounds. Most individuals who are white and American Indian live in white-dominated social worlds. Almost three-quarters say that all or most of their friends are white, and two-thirds live in largely white neighborhoods. Those who are white and Asian appear to inhabit more diverse worlds, but ones in which whites still are likely the majority. Nearly half say that most or all their friends are white, compared to just 7 percent who say this about Asians; and nearly two-thirds say that all or most of their neighbors are white. Individuals who are white and BLACK are in rather different milieus. Half of them say that all or most of their friends are BLACK. However, just a third claim to live in mostly BLACK neighborhoods; more than 40 percent live in mostly white neighborhoods.

15. This inconsistency over time makes mixed-race reporting especially unstable; moreover, when it shifts to a single race, that race is most likely to be white. For instance, of those who are reported as mixed white and Asian on either census, 63 percent are reported as being single race on the other; and white responses outnumber Asian ones by 60 percent in this group (see Table 1). An even more extreme version of this pattern appears for individuals who are reported as white and American Indian on either census. Among the almost 90 percent who appear as single race on the other census, whites outnumber American Indians by a margin of four to one. A mixed-race combination that shows a different pattern is--unsurprisingly--that of white and BLACK. The inconsistency between the 2000 and 2010 censuses is about\\

16. Also consistent with older social realities is a binary division of the population between majority (white) and minority, a division that guides many public presentations of demographic data about the growing diversity of the United States. The classification practices of the Census Bureau, which assign all individuals who report ethno-racially mixed backgrounds (whether these involve multiple racial origins or mixes of Hispanic and non-Hispanic ancestries) to the minority side of this division, distort the social realities of contemporary mixing. As we have shown, most ethno-racial mixing involves both white and minority parentage. The available evidence strongly suggests that individuals from majority-minority backgrounds--with the important exception of those with BLACK parentage--resemble whites more than they do minorities in key social characteristics and experiences.