Health of multiracial children is more than just black and white

September 16, 2019

Kate Choi, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology

Photo by Paul Mayne/Story by Rob Rombouts

What does it mean to be multiracial in the United States, and what impact does the rise in multiracial individuals have on racial inequalities in health?

Over the past five decades, North American countries have seen the unprecedented rise in numbers of interracial unions and mixed-race individuals. Kate Choi, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, has investigated how this demographic change will affect racial inequality, in a new paper, “The health of biracial children in two-parent families in the United States”, published in Demographic Research.

Using data from the National Health Interview Survey, Choi was able to identify the reported race of children based on maternal and paternal race and identify multiracial children of mixed Black-White heritage. In fact, she was able to take it one step further, and distinguish children born to white fathers and black mothers from those born to black fathers and white mothers. In most previous studies, children of Black-White heritage have generally been treated as a single group although there is evidence that White male-Black female couples are more advantaged than Black male-White female couples. By breaking them down into subcategories, Choi was able to document health disparities depending on the gender of the Black parent.

Choi concluded that the health outcomes were closely connected with the parental race, and ranged on a continuum. Children in household with two white parents tended to have the best health outcomes, and those in single-race black household had the worst health rates. Households with white fathers and black mothers had rates closer to single-race white households while those with black fathers and white mothers were closer to single-race black households.

Choi speculates that these varied health outcomes could have many causes. Educational differences of partners who select into the distinct unions may contribute to health inequalities across these groups. It is a well-established fact that children born to educationally disadvantaged parents tend to have poorer health relative to those born to parents with higher levels of schooling. Black fathers complete fewer years of schooling relative to White fathers. Because people cohabit or marry a spouse with similar levels of education, the partners of Black fathers also have lower levels of schooling relative to the partners of White fathers.

The strength of family connections also plays a role. White families are less supportive of interracial unions. As a result, whites in interracial unions experience more stress than blacks in interracial unions. White women are more affected by these familial reactions than white men. This means that there are higher levels of stress in white female-black male unions, which can lead to worse health outcomes for children born in these unions.

“Race relations within the family goes on to the affect the next generation,” said Choi.

Finally, limited access to services within the health care system can lead to worse outcomes for children with black parents. Choi found that while single-race white families self-report better health rates, they actually have higher rates of developmental diagnosis, particular for conditions such as ADHD and autism. Choi states that these families are more likely to go to the doctor to get a diagnosis.

All three of these point to the prevailing discrimination within society. While many health surveys assign multiracial people into single-race categories, Choi said these assignments miss nuances created by differences in parental race. Delving deeper into the health data has provided insight into whether racial inequality will increase or decrease with more multi-racial families.