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There are many reasons that sociologists or anthropologists oppose placing Americans into the racial categories that our government and business are apt to use. I I think that it’s time to acknowledge the increasing number of multiracial Americans — not only because doing so gives us a more accurate view of the population, but because it will help to break down the racial barriers that now divide this country.

Many people feel they don’t belong in one of the existing mono-racial categories. Some simply reject the notion of being categorized. Others, especially Hispanics, are viewed as members of one race but wish to be considered as members of another, or change their minds as to which race they belong to over their lifetime. The great variation in skin color and other racial features within all racial groups makes the question of who is “in” versus who is “out” far more flexible than it sometimes seems. For example, many Hispanics have dark skin but do not consider themselves black, just as many light-skinned African Americans do not wish to pass as white.

The “Other” category, also found on government and business forms, which many of these people chose, has never been fully recognized as an independent grouping. When the Census Bureau released its 1990 data for use by the government, it “modified” the figures by eliminating the “Other” category and reclassifying its members according to the mono-racial categories by a process known as hot-decking that is a standard means of imputing missing data in surveys. The Census Bureau argues that it allowed for better comparisons with past data, when the “Other” category did not exist. But this does not explain why government agencies that deal with the distribution of funds by racial categories chose to use the modified data rather than the original which was also available.

The “Other” category is not satisfactory, so why not introduce a new “multiracial” category? Introducing a multiracial category would help soften the racial lines that now divide America by making them more like transitory economic differences rather than harsh, immutable caste lines. Sociologists have long observed that a major reason the United States experiences few confrontations along lines of class is that people in this country believe they can move from one economic stratum to another — and regularly do so. For instance, workers become foremen, and foremen become small businessmen, who are considered middle-class. There are no sharp class lines here, based on heredity, as there are in Britain. In the United States, many manual workers consider themselves middle-class, dress up to go to work, with their tools and lunches in their briefcases.

But confrontations do occur along racial lines in America because color lines currently seem rather rigid: Many members of one racial group simply couldn’t imagine belonging to another.

If the new category is adopted and, if more and more Americans choose it in future decades, it will help make America look more like Hawaii, where races mix freely, and less like India where castes still divide the population sharply. And the blurring of racial lines will encourage greater social cohesiveness overall.

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