Tiger Woods has been called the first African American to win the Masters. His success on the links has touched off a procession of stories on black golfers. Even his father once pumped him up by saying, "We need a black in a green jacket," a reference to the symbolic vestment awarded to the winner of the Masters tournament.
But now, in an interview to be televised tomorrow, Woods says it is a mistake to characterize him simply as "black," a remark that brings into sharp focus the debate over how the increasing number of mixed-race Americans are seen and categorized.
"Growing up, I came up with this name: I'm a `Cablinasian,' " Woods said during a taping of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." He said the name best captures his racial makeup: a blend of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian.
Woods' comments are likely to focus new attention on an argument raging among academics, civil-rights leaders and, particularly, those who come from mixed ancestries: Are the racial categories Americans use to define themselves becoming outdated by a changing demographic portrait?
The debate goes to the very meaning of race in a country where the lines separating racial categories are growing blurry.
Congress was picking up the issue today with a hearing exploring how the federal government measures race and ethnicity.
The matter is integral to the next census, to which some advocates want to add a "mixed-race" category to accommodate those who no longer fit neatly into the familiar racial descriptions.
Fed by rapid rates of immigration and sharp increases in interracial marriages, the number of mixed-race Americans, while still relatively small, is growing at an unprecedented rate.
Between 1970 and 1994, the number of interracial married couples leaped more than fourfold, to more than 3 million from 676,000, according to the Census Bureau.
Between 1960 and 1990, the rate of black-white marriages more than tripled, to 6 percent of all marriages involving African Americans, from 1.7 percent.
Although no firm data are available, demographers believe the rate is even higher for other groups, because African Americans are far less likely to marry outside their race than are other groups such as Hispanics, Asians or Native Americans.
"Tiger Woods is not alone in wanting the racial background of both his parents and all his relatives reflected in how people describe him," said Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has written about the explosion of interracial marriage.
Donald Yee, a federal employee in Seattle, is part black, part Asian and part Native American. And he can relate fully to Woods' point of view.
"When you are of mixed ancestry, people often try to have you deny or to speak out against other parts of your ancestry," Yee said. "To affirm one part of your ancestry is frequently taken as a denial of another. But you want to be proud of all your roots."
When Yee fills out racial questionnaires, he frequently checks "multiracial." If that is not an option, he goes with either black or Asian. "Neither bothers me," he said. "It is just that it doesn't capture all of me."
History of classifications
The long history of racial classifications in America started in 1790 with the categories "free white male," "free white female" and "slave."
But those census classifications have changed with the times, and in 1820, terminology included "free white" and "free colored."
"Mulatto" was coined in 1850, followed in 1870 by "quadroon" and "octoroon," to provide exacting measures of someone's black heritage. Since 1977 the federal government has used the same categories on census forms: black, white, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander. Respondents may also select "other," and they are also separately asked if they are of Hispanic origin. All answers are based on self-identification.
America's history of government-sanctioned racial segregation has fed a national tradition of strong racial identification. Until 1967, states were constitutionally permitted to ban mixed-race marriages. More than half the states had anti-miscegenation statutes in 1945; 19 still had them in 1966.
For generations, American society defined people as black if they had even "one drop" of black blood. That point was illustrated most famously by Homer Plessy, the man who was arrested in 1896 after he refused to leave a train car reserved for whites. He took that case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that segregation was indeed constitutional.
Yet what made his case more remarkable is that Plessy was only one-eighth black and appeared white. Some say that the nation's painful racial history will make it difficult for those of mixed race not to be categorized by others, regardless of how they see themselves.
"Because of the historical tradition in this country of perceiving mixed-race people with any kind of African origins as African Americans, most white people and most black people will see Tiger Woods as part of the collective of African Americans," said Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist.
Julian Bond, a longtime civil-rights leader and NAACP board member, said he respects Woods' view and predicted it is one Americans are going to hear much more of in the coming years.
"As proud as I am of Tiger Woods, I realize I have to share him," Bond said. "He is part of a new reality. If people don't feel comfortable with that, they are going to have to get comfortable with it."