The Census Bureau has begun rolling out state-by-state demographic data distilled from the 2010 Census. They include statistics on race and Hispanic origin that can be broken down with meticulous geographic precision. If you want to know how many African Americans live in Arkansas's Benton School District (1,302), or whether Maryland's white population has gone up or down since 2000 (down 0.9 percent), or which Vermont county has the most Hispanics (Chittenden, with 2,586), the Census Bureau can tell you. Spend a while with the census search engine, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the nation's racial composition has never been defined with such pinpoint accuracy.
In fact, the nation's racial composition has never been defined with less accuracy, and the margin of error is widening. Why? Because of the growing number of Americans like Michelle López-Mullins, who render the government's racial categories meaningless or obsolete. The University of Maryland student was introduced last week in a New York Times story that illustrates the difficulties faced by the bean-counters in an increasingly post-racial society:
The federal Department of Education would categorize Michelle López-Mullins -- a university student who is of Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee, and Cherokee descent -- as 'Hispanic,'" Susan Saulny's story began. "But the National Center for Health Statistics, the government agency that tracks data on births and deaths, would pronounce her 'Asian' and 'Hispanic.' And what does Ms. López-Mullins's birth certificate from the State of Maryland say? It doesn't mention her race.
"Ms. López-Mullins, 20, usually marks 'other' on surveys these days. But when she filled out a census form last year, she chose Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and white."
Though most Americans may still think of themselves as belonging to a single race, the multiracial population is surging. Racial boundaries are more permeable and easier to ignore than they have ever been before.