It’s probably fair to say that many Americans are flabbergasted by Rachel Dolezal, the reportedly race-shifting and now-former president of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter. Some are offended, others bemused. Either way, it seems that the share of Americans utterly aghast at the Dolezal story might turn out to be one of the great unifying experiences of 2015.
But for all the conversations ignited since Dolezal’s parents appear to have outed their daughter as a white woman, there is one thing that’s been lost: What Dolezal did and said as a self-made black woman and vocal combatant of injustice is unusual, but the contemporary phenomenon of race-shifting is not.
It really is not.
In fact, between 2000 and 2010 (the nation’s two most recent Census counts) the share of people who identified themselves as part Native American grew by a whopping 39 percent in a single decade, nearly four times faster than the nation's population as a whole. That’s nearly 650,000 people who were multi-racial in 2012 who did not consider themselves thus in 2000. Racial shifting is real.
And just to be clear, we aren't talking about a Native American baby boom or surge in people who identified as being of multiracial heritage because of changes made to Census forms. The latter happened for the first time in 2000, not 2010.
The vast majority of this change – according to U.S. Census staff and population experts around the country – happened as a result of shifting racial identification among adults. We're talking about 644,986 people who, for the most part, described themselves as white on the 2000 Census and then described themselves as white and Native American in 2010.
(A small share of this group of "new" partial Native Americans described themselves as black and Native American or Asian and Native American)
And this phenomenon isn’t actually new. Social scientists who study populations and the forces shaping them typically expect a racial group to grow or shrink in size based on four pretty logical factors: 1) People die, 2) people are born, 3) people move to the United States and 4) people move to new states or cities within it all the time. But in every census since 1960, when the U.S. Census first gave Americans the opportunity to self-identify their race at all, the size of the country’s Native American/Alaska Native population has grown exponentially at a rate that far outpaces the net total of all the deaths, births and international or domestic relocation in the United States.
Experts point to a number of factors, including everything from shrinking stigma, if not a certain cultural cachet, attached to a multiracial identity. Then there is technology’s capacity to connect people to previously unknown ancestors, living relatives and the particulars of their genetic inheritance. And this phenomenon might be a function of something more rapacious.
The leader of a Tennessee tribe not recognized by the federal government told me that after meeting a number of people who have begun to describe themselves as part Native American in the past decade that he suspects some of these people are hoping that their claims will lead to tribal membership. And, he told me, at least some of these people hope that maybe one day in the not too distant future, a share of the profits from future tribal businesses, such as casinos, will follow.
Of course, no one can say with certainty whether that’s true of most or even some of the people who identified as partially Native American in 2010 that did not do so in 2000.
But the shift is mostly just on paper. In a report released last week, analysts at the Pew Research Center found that Americans who describe themselves as white and Native American make up the largest share of the country’s multiracial population. But only a small fraction of these same people told Pew’s researchers that they described themselves as anything other than white in their day-to-day lives.
Race continues to shape and sometimes distort life in the United States. Clear racial disparities persist in everything from health and education outcomes to household wealth and interest rates paid on just about every type of loan that you can imagine. People of color live shorter lives and, in many cases, more difficult and expensive ones than white Americans.
Maybe some of the country’s census-form-only multiracial Americans fear what life would become if they no longer fall clearly on the white side of the nation’s racial ledger. Perhaps others worry that they will face the kind of ridicule and questions about integrity that have dogged Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) since her claims of Native American ancestry (she said she is one-32nd Cherokee) have become public knowledge.
And this, of course, brings us back to Dolezal.
What appears to divide Dolezal from many — if not most — of the Americans who described themselves on 2010 Census forms as more than one race are two things: 1) Dolezal appears to have taken great pains to hide her white roots, and 2) at the very least, she exploited the uncertain parameters of race and its fraught meaning to lend her work and opinions credibility. At the worst, she totally invented a new racial identity.
Why Dolezal felt that she could not do the same work as a white woman remains unclear. The history of the NAACP, in particular, makes this difficult to understand. But in truth, if blackness had value for Dolezal, it's almost certain that whiteness also has some value for millions of other Americans.
That choice simply seems more logical because of persistent racial inequality.
Still, as round two of the great national examination of Dolezal’s psyche begins, there is good reason to ask yourself, your neighbors and your friends about their heritage and how, if at all, it differs from the racial identity they publicly embrace. And know this: Their answers today might be different than they will be in 2020, when the next Census happens.
Consider this from a special report on racial shifting compiled by a team of demographic experts for the U.S. Census bureau in 2014:
In research on identity change and response change, part-American Indians have been shown to shift responses more often than people with black, Asian, white, and/or Hispanic heritage … Are American Indians fundamentally different? ... We think not. Instead, we see American Indians as representing the vanguard; other groups may well follow in their path. For example, Asian- and Hispanic-Americans have recently been experiencing high levels of interracial unions … and both groups are moving in the direction of having highly mixed populations … like American Indians. Questions of identity, socially-defined group boundaries, and measurement are likely to expand for many race/ethnic groups in coming years. Pacific Islanders and multiple-race respondents from all race groups already show a high level of race response change across the 2000 to 2010 period.
It seems that this might be a nation full of racial shifters after all.