CHICAGO -- Will the U.S. census form find a place for Tiger Woods in 2000?

Will it force him to identify himself as black or Asian or white or American Indian, when in reality he is all of the above? Or will he have to check "other" on the census questionnaire, whatever that means?

Mr. Woods is one-fourth Thai, one-fourth Chinese, one-fourth black, one-eighth white and one-eighth Native American. Although he is widely hailed as an African-American pioneer and a role model for black kids, he says he doesn't want to deny his maternal heritage and be labeled just black.

Earl Woods has instructed his son to claim that he is black when he is in the United States and Asian when he is in the Orient, according to a biography of Tiger by John Strege to be published next month. Tiger himself says that he filled out school forms using both African-American and Asian- American labels. He calls himself a "Cablinasian" -- his linguistic blend of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian.

The Census Bureau should give him a chance to list himself as the "multiracial" he is when it counts him and others like him in 2000. The census now provides five racial categories -- white, black, Asian (including Pacific Islanders), American Indian (including Eskimos and Aleuts) and "other." Hispanics, in particular, may be confused by the race question; they are considered an ethnic group, not a race.

A share of power

Who we are -- and who the Census Bureau says we are -- is not only emotionally sensitive, but politically and economically important in today's racially charged public life. Minority groups use census numbers to push their claims for a fairer share of political and economic power, entitlements and the American pie. They fear that a category of multiracial will dilute their racial totals and their clout.

So the Census Bureau is taking its time to decide on proposals to let people count themselves as multiracial in 2000, if that is what they are. Last year, a test sampling of proposed questions showed that only 1 percent of those queried called themselves multiracial, reducing the percentage who checked "other" or Asian. Among Hispanics, 6.7 percent identified themselves as multiracial and fewer checked the classification of "other."

In the 1990 census, 3 million people said they were married to or living with a person of another race and that they had approximately 2 million biracial or multiracial children. Twelve percent of new marriages of blacks are interracial, double the number in 1980, according to a 1993 study. Twelve percent of Asian men, 25 percent of Asian women and 60 percent of Native Americans marry someone of a different race. About 4 percent of white men, ages 25 to 34, are married to a spouse of a different race, four times the percentage in the 1950s.

The numbers are expected to be much higher at the century's end, as segregation decreases on the job, in housing and in other sector of American life, as immigration remains high and interracial marriage in the military increases. At least one of every 11 people in this country is foreign-born, double the ratio in 1970, according to a 1995 count.

Little difference among races

This nation has come a long way since the time when whites pushed anyone with "one drop" of Negro blood into the category of black, with all the ugly discrimination that meant. But in some ways, our demeaning and destructive preoccupation with race persists, even as scientists are pointing out how little difference there really is among races and how even that is changing with intermarriage.

As race-based entitlements, affirmative action and discrimination issues grow more complex and more controversial, it may be time for the government to stop identifying people by race at all.

Some fans of Tiger Woods are worrying that his insistence on being considered multiracial instead of African-American will hurt his popularity. He has been embraced by blacks as the legitimate heir of such great pioneers as Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Arthur Ashe, Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Ted Rhodes. When he won the Masters, Mr. Woods publicly hailed the last three for helping to open golf to blacks. He sometimes holds clinics for black kids and encourages them to participate in golf.

But Tiger Woods is more than a black hero. He is one of the faces of the future in America. And he is a good reason to drop all those labels that separate us -- African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, Hispanic-American -- in favor of a more accurate description: plain, unhyphenated American.

This is a lot for a 21-year-old to carry on his shoulders. This country should make it possible for him to be himself, to play golf and to do what he can do so well -- be an inspiration and role model for all young people -- without having to stick a racial label on him.

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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