Tuesday, March 13, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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William Raspberry / Syndicated columnist

Nation's totem pole gets a realignment

Syndicated columnist

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WASHINGTON - Some of us have been wrestling with the implications of the Census Bureau's report that African Americans will soon be only the second-largest American minority. But there is another aspect of that report that also bears some thought:

Approximately 1.76 million people who identified themselves as African American also checked at least one other racial/ethnic-identity box.

More interesting still: One in 12 African Americans 18 or younger checked multiple boxes. Only 2.3 percent of those 50 or older did so. That may reflect the increase in the number of children of mixed-race marriages. But it also, I suspect, reflects a changing attitude toward racial identity among younger African Americans.

I'm old enough to have lived through two earlier phases. The first saw a number of black folk making a big deal of the fact that they were also Irish or German or Native American or something. It was as though they were looking for some non-black ancestry to validate their humanity - or, at any rate, that's how it seemed to me at the time.

Then came the period of "black is beautiful," when black people were at pains to claim only their blackness. It was as though the dilution of their Africanness, no matter how visually obvious, was an embarrassment.

This new group uncovered by the census may simply be telling the truth, without shame or pride. But who knows?

Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, believes there are a number of matters of concern in this newest census, details of which are still being reported.

"The fact that the Hispanic population is passing the African-American population several years sooner than had been predicted surely has some implications for how we think about our situation," he told me. "There's no question that a realigning of the groups on the American totem pole could affect the way politicians and marketers allocate their time and attention.

"But for me, the clearest message is that we as African Americans have to focus on the fundamentals: on education, on economics, on being a political force to be wooed by the political parties rather than being taken for granted by one and ignored by the other. Most importantly, it says we have to earn our right to be at the table based on what we have to offer, rather than pleading to be there based on what we've been denied in the past.

"I think the country is moving increasingly in that direction."

Is it? The polls (and, overwhelmingly, my mail) suggest that white Americans are ready to put race aside as an irrelevancy. Indeed, many of them think they already have done so. Blacks are far less certain about that, which is why affirmative action and other governmental programs for minorities loom so important.

A number of African-American politicians have had misgivings about the whole racial-identification change in the census forms. Artificially reducing the number of African Americans, they have said, could affect the distribution of certain government benefits, particularly in the big cities.

But what are those benefits distributed on the basis of race? Price couldn't think of any. "Certainly some funds are distributed on the basis of socioeconomics," he said, "which is why the matter of the undercount in the inner cities is critical. It could also have an impact on how you think about congressional redistricting, that sort of thing."

But Price is perhaps more intrigued by the fact that more blacks are starting to identify themselves as not only black. "We could be seeing the dawning of a new reality of what America is," he said. "That could be especially true when whites start to check other boxes - and I don't think that's too far-fetched. I recently sat next to a young white college student on the train and she mentioned, in passing, that she was part Wampanoag Indian. Somehow I was struck by how she said it: without boasting or apology, just as another little fact about herself."

Is that how all of us should think of race and ethnicity - as mere biological by-the-ways? Well, of course - ideally. It's where we all say we want to be.

Do the self-descriptions in the latest census take us nearer to that ideal?

Hugh Price doesn't know.

I agree with Hugh Price.

William Raspberry's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is


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