The Shifting Politics of Multiracialism in the United States

The Shifting Politics of Multiracialism in the United States

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) 2008 Annual Meeting
Hynes Convention Center
Boston, Massachusetts

38 pages

Awarded the American Political Science Association Public Policy Section 2008 prize for her paper, co-authored with Vesla Weaver, of the University of Virginia Government Department, “The Shifting Politics of Multiculturalism in the United States.”  The award will be presented at the APSA Annual Meeting, 2009-09-03 through 2009-09-06  in Toronto, Canada.

Jennifer L. Hochschild, Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government & Professor of African and African American Studies
Harvard University

Vesla Weaver, Assistant Professor
The Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics
University of Virginia

For the first time in American history, the 2000 census allowed respondents to identify with more than one race. That change resulted, in part, from mobilization of activists and an increasing population of mixed-race partnerships and multiracial offspring.  However, despite both supporters’ and opponents’ predictions of rapid growth in multiracial identification, less than 3 percent of the population chose more than one race in 2000.  And the largest recent surveys show similar results.

This paper explores whether and how far multiracialism has become embedded in Americans’ practice and understanding of race, and considers what might happen in the foreseeable future. Starting from theories that elegantly explicate various forms of policy feedback and transformation but are weaker on causal explanations for them, we identify four factors that lead an enacted policy to endure or be blocked.  They are: whether other agencies have incentives to institutionalize the policy, whether the policy triggers development of a committed constituency, whether opposing groups remain strong, and whether the change is supported by independent societal trends. We find that the first and fourth factors encourage consolidation of multiracial identification, while the second and third work toward keeping it very low. Thus institutional procedures and underlying societal trends tend in one direction while individuals’ active and intentional choices are tending the opposite way: a fascinating and unusual situation with important implications for theories of path dependency and policy transformation.

The trajectory of multiracial identification could change the racial order in the United States, for better or for worse. If it increases, it might portend a shift in classification norms that could break down racial boundaries and even reduce interracial hostility and fear.  Alternatively, an increase could signal Americans’ desire to find one more route out of blackness and into some less denigrated status, to the detriment of African Americans. If multiracial identification does not increase, that will indicate the power of old single race understandings regardless of demographic changes, with all of their implications for prejudice and group loyalty.

Read the entire paper here.

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