USA TODAY, May 8, 1997, Thursday, FINAL EDITION, Pg. 1A HEADLINE: Measuring race Varied heritage claimed and extolled by millions BYLINE: Haya El Nasser

In one master stroke, Tiger Woods has exposed mainstream USA to what millions of multiracial Americans have felt for years: frustration at being pigeonholed into one race category.

Hailed as the first black golfer to win the Masters, Woods defiantly set the record straight shortly after his historic win: He does not want to be called black. He prefers "cablinasian," a term he made up to illustrate the racial patchwork of his heritage: Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian.

Woods' public resistance has given powerful ammunition to the growing number of Americans who do not fit neatly into existing race categories. They want to be recognized and are demanding a new multiracial category on all federal and state forms.

"We are invisible right now in America," says Susan Graham, founder of Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally).

Graham is white. Her husband is black. They have two children who have been classified white on U.S. Census Bureau forms and black at school. At home, they're both. But nowhere on federal forms can Graham's children list their complete race history.

The hoopla surrounding Woods could not have come at a more fortunate time for proponents of a change. Congress is holding hearings this month on race. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wisconsin, has introduced a bill asking for a multiracial box on federal forms. He calls it the "Tiger Woods" bill.

Similar legislation has been introduced this year in Texas and Minnesota. In California, supporters of a multiracial category are circulating a petition to get it on the ballot.

And the federal Office of Management and Budget, which sets government policy on racial categories, will issue recommendations on proposed changes July 1. If changes don't come this year, the pressure won't let up.

The ranks of mixed-race Americans clamoring for a "multiracial" category are swelling. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of multiracial children under age 18 has quadrupled to 2 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That number will grow as interracial marriages continue to soar. There were 1.4 million interracial couples in 1995, a 114% increase since 1980, the Census Bureau said.

Since 1992, seven states have added a multiracial category to state forms, such as school enrollment documents: Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina and Florida.

But when the Census Bureau surveys the population to collect data on the demographic profile of the country, it offers only four major race choices: White; black; Asian/Pacific Islander; and American Indian. Only one can be checked off.

The Hispanic category is an ethnic classification, not racial. Hispanics can be of any race, for example.

An "other" category was added to Census forms in 1980. It allows people to fill in a race. But if more than one is listed, only the first will register. So if Graham's kids check off "other" and write in "black/white," only black will be counted.

"The bottom line is that there are millions of people in this country who have been classified incorrectly," Graham says. "We ought to be able to identify ourselves."

Stacey Davis, 22, struggled with her racial identity all her life. Her mother is Thai. Her father is Creole -- a blend of black, French and German. People have confused her for a Latina, Filipina and Hawaiian. But, officially, Davis has been classified white all her life because she looked white at birth.

"Growing up, you try to figure out what you are," says Davis, who lives in New Orleans. "But I know I feel uncomfortable being classified one or the other. A multiracial category would make it easier."

On an emotional level, this plea for recognition gets a sympathetic ear from many. But in the more pragmatic world of politics and special interests, opposition is stiff.

The debate comes down to power and money. At stake is the flow of billions of federal dollars for everything from housing and education to health research. The amount of money that flows to programs to benefit various minority groups is based on the numbers of people in each group.

Leaders in the black, Asian American and Native American communities don't want to lose clout.

"While we're sensitive to the personal feelings of people who identify themselves as multiracial, we're also concerned it might skew the data a certain way," says Harold McDougall, with the NAACP.

Minority leaders also point out that all landmark civil rights and anti-discrimination court decisions are based on existing race categories. "There is no recorded history of any discrimination against multiracials," McDougall says.

The fear is that multiracials who are discriminated against because they look black or Asian would not be protected by existing rulings. But various surveys have shown that only 1% to 1.5% of Americans would check off a multiracial category if it were offered on Census forms. And the bulk are people who now opt for "other." A very small number would shift from the Asian American and American Indian categories.

Adding a multiracial category would require reprinting millions of government forms, an expensive proposition. "We would not make a change unless we were convinced it would increase the accuracy and the value of the data collected," says Sally Katzen, with the Office of Management and Budget. "One has to consider whether that . . . would offset, and to what extent, the cost involved in printing new forms and the burden on employers or school districts that would have to change their system of record keeping."

A multiracial category also would make it difficult to compare new statistics with past data. But one of the options considered is allowing respondents to check off all race categories that apply or allow them to write in their background.

Legislators and federal officials are bound to take into account that some multiracials are comfortable with current race categories. Kimberly Campbell, 24, is black, American Indian, white and Hispanic.

"Culturally, I consider myself to be Afro-American," says Campbell, director of student services for an international non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. "America sees me as black. To most people I won't be anything else. That's my subtle way of eliminating the confusion. But I know what I am. I would not check a mixed box. I would prefer it if there weren't any boxes at all."

But Anna Maria Gill wants her children to be counted for who they are. Gill is Mexican-American. Her ex-husband is black. They have two children, Natana, 18, and Marcus, 17.

"My kids embrace both cultures. To say they're one or the other is totally wrong," says Gill, 38, who is fund-raising director for a Houston hospital group. "We can't change history. But we can at least make a difference in our children so they can properly acknowledge their parents."

Katzen, with the Office of Management and Budget, is well aware of the depth of emotions in the debate. In 1993, she received a handwritten letter. When she opened it, a picture of a beautiful young girl with very dark skin and Asian features fell out. The letter asked Katzen if she wanted to deny this girl part of her ancestry. "I remember getting goose pimples."