chapter  4
18 Pages

Making (mixed-)race: census politics and the emergence of multiracial multiculturalism in the United States, Great Britain and Canada

ByCanada Debra Thompson

Scholars have recently afforded more attention to how racial classification schemas in national censuses have contributed to the institutionalization of racial boundaries (Nobles 2000; Perlmann and Waters 2002). In particular, explorations of the classification of mixedrace, especially in the United States, reveal that the state has historically perceived racial intermixture as highly problematic and has categorized mixed-race in order to reify the hierarchical ordering

of discrete racial categories (Lee 1993; Hodes 2006; Hochschild and Powell 2008). In contemporary times, classifications in the census play an important role as the primary source of statistical data for various government sectors, such as health, education, and civil rights (Skrentny 1996; Aspinall 2003; Simon 2005). On a discursive level the relevance of the census is undeniable; as Kertzer and Arel (2002) argue, the census does not simply reflect objective social reality, but rather plays a constitutive role in its construction. Given that those who now identify as more than one race on national censuses are among the fastest growing populations in the United States, Great Britain and Canada,1 whether or not, and how, mixed-race people are enumerated is an important issue. This article explores the state’s role in making (mixed-)race by

comparing the political processes preceding the inaugural enumeration of multiracial individuals on the censuses of the United States, Great Britain2 and Canada in the late twentieth century. These cases provide interesting vantage points: the shift to a ‘mark one or more’ approach in the United States in 2000 is largely attributed to the actions of a social movement that pushed Congress for the change (Nobles 2000; Robbin 2000; Williams 2003). However, parallel developments occurred in both Canada and Great Britain without the social mobilization of external actors. What explains the convergence of these decisions to count mixed-race? The multiracial social movement undoubtedly played a significant

role in the development of a multiple response approach to racial census classifications in the United States. However, this comparison also reveals that by the 2000 census round, norms surrounding diversity in the United States, Canada and Great Britain shifted towards a paradigm of multiracial multiculturalism, in which mixedrace identities were acknowledged as part of rather than problematic within diverse societies and could be recognized as a positive attribute of the multicultural nation. More specifically, this normative change was spurred by a growing awareness of the multiracial population, which stemmed partly from demographic trends and increasingly unsettled perceptions about discrete racial categories, as well as a transnational norm in census-taking that gave credence to the notion of self-identification. These factors possess both ideational and institutional elements and together enabled mixed-race to be employed and promoted, at times strategically, as a corollary of multicultural discourse.