The Generational Locus of Multiraciality and its Implications for Racial Self-identification (Ann Morning and Aliya Saperstein)


1. Estimates of the size of the multiracial population in the United States depend on what prompts people to report multiple races on censuses and surveys. We use data from the 2015 Pew Survey of Multiracial Adults to explore how racial self-identification is shaped by the generational locus of an individual's multiracial ancestry--that is, the place in one's family tree where the earliest interracial union appears. We develop the theoretical rationale for considering generational heterogeneity and provide its first empirical demonstration for U.S. adults, by estimating what shares of the population identify multiracial ancestry in their parents' or grandparents' generation, or further back in their family tree. We find that multiracial generation is related to--and likely confounded with--the ancestry combinations that individuals report (e.g., white-Asian, black-American Indian). Finally, we show that later generations are less likely than their first-generation counterparts to select multiple races when they self-identify. Consequently, we argue that generational locus of multiracial ancestry should be taken into account by demographers and researchers who study outcomes for multiracial Americans.

2. Keywords: demography; racial classification; multiracial population; generation; ancestry


3. Enumerating the Multiple-Race Population. . . Given the long reach of the “one-drop rule,” a custom by which Americans with any AFRICAN ancestry are considered solely as BLACK, there are many Americans for whom “mixed race” is not a plausible identity, regardless of their ancestral background.

4. The consequences of multiracial status have varied in the United States, as attitudes, legal discriminations, and classificatory practices toward interracial couples, mixed-race people, and nonwhites generally have changed over time. The legal persecution, media interest, and social opprobrium that Mildred and Richard Loving faced for their 1958 marriage, for example, would not be the lot of a white man and BLACK woman married in 2008.

5. The period effects related to the generational locus of multiracial ancestry also likely contribute to what are usually interpreted as effects of specific racial combinations (e.g., white-Black, white-Asian, etc.). Gullickson and Morning (2011) suggested as much after finding that individuals reporting mixed Asian ancestry were more likely than those reporting mixed AFRICAN ancestry to self-identify using more than one race; they hypothesized that this reflected the more generationally recent characteristic of mixed Asian people, as opposed to the more genealogically distant source for mixed BLACKs, which was grounded in earlier beliefs about “one-drop” racial classification. In short, the period-specific social treatment of both interracial unions and their multiracial offspring is likely to have implications for later generations and should not be conflated with the impact of particular combinations of racial ancestry.

6. Regarding the second dimension, we hypothesize that genealogical distance is associated with weakened or broken kinship ties, particularly those that span perceived racial divides. Accordingly, we expect that in the contemporary united states, being the “biracial” daughter of a white father and BLACK mother entails stronger social ties to the white community than does being the seventh-generation “BLACK” descendant of a white slave owner and black slave.

7. More generally, we see that groups combining white, BLACK, and/or American Indian ancestry have the largest third-generation shares, likely reflecting many seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early-nineteenth-century unions under conditions of slavery and territorial conquest.

8. the breakdown by ancestry combination also demonstrates how variation in overall propensities to identify with more than one race--say, 58 percent for respondents with white-Asian ancestors versus 15 percent for those reporting white-Black ancestors--may not reflect ancestry combination-specific tendencies so much as distinct generational compositions. In this example, first-generation white-Asian and white-Black respondents are more similar in their propensity to identify with more than one race (at 77 and 66 percent, respectively), so the different shares of the first generation in each population is likely a key factor that explains the wide divergence in multiple-race self-identification overall.