Multiracial Identification and Racial Gaps: A Work in Progress (Jenifer L. Bratter)


1. For nearly 20 years, the U.S. Census has allowed respondents to report multiple races, offering new opportunities to assess the well-being of multiracial groups. Multiple-race reporting provides much-needed nuance for assessing the racial stratification of social outcomes as the distinctions between racial groups is less clear. Here, I explore the promises and the pitfalls of working with multiple-race data in studies of race inequality. I begin with a discussion of prior work using multiple-race data, showing how they inform our understanding of race-based patterns, and also consider issues raised by the conceptual and methodological fuzziness inherent in using multiple-race responses. I then provide a brief picture of current racial differences in adult poverty rates for single- and multiple-race groups, revealing that some multiracial groups experience parity with single-race groups while others occupy a space in between. While these patterns are meaningful, multiple interpretations are possible given the nature of multiple-race data.

2. Keywords: multiracial identity; racial inequality; U.S. Census; racial identification; poverty


3. Other groups' experiences reveal the continued salience of minority status. Some argue that BLACKness may operate as a master status in the lives of BLACK-white individuals, reflecting a departure from the experiences of other multiracial groups (Lee and Bean 2010). The evidence for this is mixed. Multirace BLACKs stand apart from BLACKs in their lower exposure to segregated neighborhoods and lower rates of poor health and poverty (Bratter and Damaske 2013), pointing potentially to fewer racialized disadvantages. BLACK-white multiracials, like BLACK-white interracial families, live in more integrated and diverse areas (Bennett 2011; Ellis et al. 2012). Also, while they are slightly more likely, compared to other multiracials, to partner with their single-race minority counterparts (i.e., other AFRICAN AMERICANS), most BLACK-white adults have white partners (Miyawaki 2015). A similar pattern emerges in dating preferences (Currington, Lin, and Lundquist 2015). Ultimately, minority status remains salient for multiracial adults in the realm of mate selection (Song 2016); however, their experiences remain distinctive from minority counterparts.

4. Where do multiple-race adult householders fit into these patterns? Beneath each nonwhite single-race group are the patterns for adults who combine this group with white. BLACK-white adults have a poverty risk that trends below, but close to, single-race BLACK/AFRICAN AMERICANS in 2005 (0.163 vs. 0.173), although this gap is significantly different by 2015 (0.145 vs. 0.179).

5. Ultimately, mixed-race groups experience a variety of gaps that are not neatly predictable given the experiences of either single-race group. Asian-white adults are the only group at near-parity with whites at any year, while BLACK-white poverty risks reflect the relatively high poverty of BLACKs. American Indian--white households also face substantial poverty risks, largely falling between whites and American Indians.

6. The current analysis of adult poverty risks across race echoes prior work by revealing that multiple-race groups are not easily collapsible into broader racial categories. BLACK-white respondents face substantial poverty risk that is mostly (though not entirely) parallel to BLACK adults; meanwhile, Asian-white adults face substantially less poverty than their Asian peers, at rates that parallel the experiences of whites in certain years.

7. Yet the patterns lend themselves to multiple interpretations. On one hand, they add support to general contentions of simultaneous hardening and softening of racial boundaries. While racial boundaries appear more permeable for non-Black multiracials, BLACK-white adults face a fairly rigid BLACK/nonBlack divide: their heightened poverty risks are generally commensurate with those of other BLACK adults; this was true particularly around the time of the Great Recession.