June 11, 2015

American Indian and white, but not ‘multiracial’

White and American Indian Biracial Adults Are the Largest Multiracial GroupAmerica’s multiracial population encompasses a multitude of racial combinations. But the largest share of multiracial adults by far – half – is non-Hispanic white and American Indian, a new Pew Research Center survey has found. Among the 1,555 multiracial adults surveyed, an additional 12% are non-Hispanic black and American Indian, while another 6% are non-Hispanic white, black and American Indian.

Yet the same survey shows that many of these multiracial American Indian adults have few connections with Native Americans. For example, among biracial adults who are white and American Indian, only 22% say they have a lot in common with American Indians; 61% say they have a lot in common with whites. And only 19% say they have had a lot of contact with their relatives who are American Indian.

In addition, biracial adults who are white and American Indian are among the least likely of mixed-race adults to consider themselves multiracial (only 25% do). They are among the most likely to say their multiracial background has been neither an advantage nor a disadvantage; 82% say it has not made a difference.

Like Pew Research Center, the U.S. Census Bureau found that the largest number of mixed-race adults describe their racial background as non-Hispanic white and American Indian: One-in-five multiracial adults (21%) checked that racial combination in the bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey.

The Pew Research estimate of the multiracial population takes into account not just how people describe their own race but also how they describe the races of their parents and grandparents. Using this approach, some 6.9% of U.S. adults could be considered multiracial. The Census Bureau counts people as multiracial only if they self-identify as more than one race. According to census estimates, 2.1% of adults were multiracial in 2013.

Since 1960 – when Americans were first allowed to choose their own racial identity on census forms rather than having enumerators do it for them – the American Indian population has grown more rapidly than could be explained by births or immigration. Recent growth has been sharpest among the population that is American Indian and at least one other race.

More in U.S. Identifying as American IndianWhat could explain the growth in the number of American Indians in census data? Some researchers cite the lessened stigma and increased pride about being an American Indian. Another factor could be changes to the census form that could have encouraged Hispanics to identify as American Indian. Much of the growth has been in urban areas or other places that are not on Indian lands.

At the same time, the share of American Indians who report a tribal affiliation in census data has been falling. The percentage that does not provide a tribal connection is higher for multiracial American Indians than for single-race American Indians (37% vs. 24% in the 2010 census). There are now more than 500 federally recognized American Indian or Alaska Native nations that set their own criteria for membership. Although requirements differ, membership often is granted based on having proof of American Indian ancestry.

Other data show that American Indians in the census are a group with fluid membership.  Research by University of Minnesota sociologist Carolyn Liebler and two Census Bureau co-authors found that considerable numbers of people who identified as American Indian in the 2000 census did not do so in the 2010 census, or vice versa. This was especially true among those who identified as multiracial in one census or the other.

The demographics of multiracial adults could change in the future, depending on how the youngest multiracial Americans identify their race when they grow up. While adults with an American Indian background are currently the largest multiracial group, census data on babies (whose race is chosen by their parents) show a different story. In 2013, only 11% of multiracial babies were white and American Indian. A majority of mixed-race babies were either biracial white and black (36%) or biracial white and Asian (24%).

Topics: Demographics, Race and Ethnicity, U.S. Census

  1. Photo of D’Vera Cohn

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.


  1. Parrot Sarnoso2 years ago

    As per my DNA test from FTDNA I am 61% European, 20% Native American and 19% Middle Eastern, and yet, I am Hispanic. The confusing part is the new race created in the United States, the Hispanic Race, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, just here.

  2. HP2 years ago

    I’m extremely confused. I consider myself mestizo although I’m not that heavily Iberian genetically. I am predominantly American Indian and a mix of European origins. I am South American. My husband is also the same combination as me except his European origins are more Iberian than mine. Everyone seems to think he’s Asian and I’m black, lol. Uh, no. And to make it worse, our daughter appears white to people so now she is also confused as people seem to be telling her she is white. People are going by appearances in this country rather than genetics which is the only real truth. My family is mestizo as are many hispanic families and if some look white and are taken in/accepted as white…then ‘white’ doesn’t really exist. It is only a phenotype of a mixed population of people…which everyone sort of really is. I would much rather people just admit preferences for certain mutations that have come about in humans than to create an artificial hierarchy where all good human qualities are falsely connected to certain arbitrary mutations.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      I really like this comment. You’ve made a lot of interesting observations and it’s nice to hear your story, because me, my family and friends also struggle with getting sucked into one label and nobody cares to ask about our culture, family, upbringing, ancestral history.. Nobody dares go farther than appearances and we really should. People should know their roots, and whether they are passionate about their roots or not is up to them.

  3. Stig Hemmer2 years ago

    I find it fasinating that a country that calls itself “The Great Melting-Pot” is so obsessed with ethnic origins. It really shouldn’t matter.

  4. Cat B2 years ago

    Very interesting stuff! As the recent story out of Spokane, Washington, shows, “race” seems to be as much about self-perception and identification as genes. Much like the difference between “sex” (what your genes read as) and “gender” (what you and/or society recognizes you as), perhaps our society is finally willing to start opening up and diverging from the “traditional races.” Of course, this will always leave large gray areas (no pun intended), since the starting mix of “races” is much wider and diverse than the binary choice of sexes that most (though not all) humans are genetically program for (i.e., XX and XY). By the way, on an anthropological basis, science has traditionally recognized three basic distinguishable “races” of humans: Negroid [“black”], Caucasoid [“white”] and Mongoloid [“Asian,” and including Native American/Mesoamerican btw ]. (And, yes, sorry if the terms aren’t PC — those are the names used in the anthropology literature; none are meant derogatorily!) Just to point out that race isn’t entirely arbitrary (there are some genetic components!), but in this modern (enlightened? let’s hope!) day and age, perhaps we can allow people to self-identify for themselves in the way that fits them best? After all, we are all human and we are all in this world together, right?

  5. Michael2 years ago

    My fraternal great-grandmother was full-blood Cherokee, my maternal grandmother was half Choctaw, and I’ve always been proud of my Native American heritage. I have never considered American Indians as a separate “race,” but rather Caucasians who display the results of an ancient mixing of migrating races and cultures, much like today’s Hispanics of the Caribbean, Central and South America who largely identify as white.

    Who decided to make Native Americans a separate “race”…..and why?

  6. Roz Dotson2 years ago

    Race is not real. it is a manufactured classification created in the 1700’s. I am surprised that even the US government is still using the term and basing information on this incredibly divisive and made up system. In certain areas it is actually unlawful to question one’s “race.” The mending of our social ills should start with making the word and use of the word “race” nonexistent. I will always question any information structured using race because there are too many variables. American Indians like myself are no longer filling in “other” spaces or using terms like multiracial or mixed blood, etc. Statistics can be based on age, location, etc. but it is politics that use stats and polls based on ‘race’ in such a divisive manner that has led to the monkey house we call congress. It is colonization that brought this division to Native Nations and reduced being human to categories based on a misguided physical assessment (appearance) in an effort to prove that White is the ‘best race’…it’s time to stop this fallacy.