The torrent of public commentary triggered by the Census Bureau’s new report on race and ethnicity instructs us less about the fine points of demographic change and more about what’s on America’s mind in the year 2021.
The report in question, “2020 Census Illuminates Racial and Ethnic Composition of the Country,” presents a wealth of interesting tidbits covering America’s panoply of racial and ethnic groups. But no tidbit has so seized the American imagination as the fact that the “white alone” population has declined by 8.6 percent since the 2010 Decennial Census. Whether the thought of it evokes elation or despair, white Americans are on the path to extinction; the coming majority-minority society is ineluctable. Or so you would guess from a quick sweep of the headlines. See, for examples: “Census Data Show America’s White Population Shrank for the First Time,” “Census shows US is diversifying, white population shrinking,” “Census shows US growth driven by minorities; white pop falls under 60 percent,” and “Census data shows the number of White people in the U.S. fell for the first time since 1790.”
Whether Americans love talking about white people or love to hate talking about white people, the general preoccupation is undeniable. And this new report seems to confirm what everyone’s been thinking—white America is on its way out. But the story is more complicated than the headlines suggest. It is true that the white population is aging even as birth rates decline and that the general trend of the last 50 years has been an increasingly diverse American population (largely due to the effects of immigration, since birth rates are declining among whites and nonwhites alike). But it is quite a leap to declare, as some commentators want to do, that the 2020 Census results definitively establish the cataclysmic impact of these social trends on America’s white population.
For one, that leap conveniently brushes over the Census Bureau’s disclaimer that the changes they report—though they “could be attributed to a number of factors, including demographic change since 2010”—are in all likelihood “largely due to the improvements to the design of the two separate questions for race and ethnicity, data processing and coding, which enabled a more thorough and accurate depiction of how people prefer to self-identify.” In other words, these numbers are of limited value in telling us what changed on the ground between 2010 and 2020. Not surprisingly, though, the bureau’s fine-print plea that “data users should use caution when comparing 2010 Census and 2020 Census race data” is impotent against Americans’ obsession with talking about race.
Note, too, that census data about race and ethnicity has always been plagued with inconsistency and uncertainty due to the dubious and ever-changing ways these characteristics are measured. The current system for gathering race and ethnicity data—which relies on self-identification, allows people to select more than one race, and confusingly separates the concepts “race” and “ethnicity”—was put in place only two censuses ago, and it’s clear the Census Bureau is still ironing out the kinks.
This general word of caution aside, there are specific qualifications to the claim that the white population is declining. While the “white alone” population has gotten smaller, the “white in combination” population (people who checked the “white” box and at least one other) is exploding. According to the bureau’s report, the “in combination population saw a 316% increase” since 2010; and if you look at “whites alone or in combination” instead of “whites alone,” the number of white Americans has actually increased by a small margin since the last census (from 231 million to 235.4 million, an increase of 1.9 percent). Furthermore, the decline in the non-Hispanic white-alone population was much gentler than that for the entire white-alone population (2.6 percent instead of 8.6 percent), which is perhaps explained by the fact that far fewer Latinos chose to identify as white alone in the 2020 Census. (In 2010, 53 percent of Hispanics identified as white alone; in 2020, just 20.3 percent did.) These numbers should give us pause before we opine about the approaching extinction of white Americans.
A similar pattern can be seen across all groups, not just whites. For example, “while the Black or African American alone population grew 5.6% since 2010, the Black or African American in combination population grew 88.7%.” In fact, “the ‘in combination’ multiracial populations for all race groups accounted for most of the overall changes in each racial category.” Accordingly, when we group all multiracial Americans together, we find that “the Multiracial population has changed considerably since 2010. It was measured at 9 million people in 2010 and is now 33.8 million people in 2020, a 276% increase” [emphasis added]. The “white in combination” population is 31.1 million, making up the vast majority (92 percent) of the total multiracial population.
One could argue, therefore, that the biggest story here is not a decline in white Americans, while that seems to be happening on some scale, but a phenomenon such that “minorities” are absorbed into a white “majority” and binary racial categorizations begin to break down. This is the argument of Richard Alba’s 2020 bookThe Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding Mainstream. Alba makes a compelling case that our racial categories are ill-suited to reflect the reality of racial and ethnic identity in the United States, which is fluid, subjective, and tending toward a general assimilation of minority groups into an increasingly diverse and complex mainstream. That is, “majority culture” is decreasingly synonymous with “white alone.” This change is driven by accelerating rates of intermarriage across racial and ethnic lines and “the resulting surge of young Americans who come from mixed family backgrounds.”
Evidence of the fluidity of racial dynamics in America is found in the fact that an estimated 6 percent of Americans changed their ethno-racial self-identification between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses. According to a recent Pew study, only half of American adults say that the racial categories offered on the Census questionnaire reflect them “very well.” Pew also cites previous survey results indicating that multiracial Americans have more fluid racial identities than other Americans, and that “many Americans of multiracial backgrounds do not identify as such.”
Why is this story so often obscured? One explanation is that, for cultural and political reasons, people of mixed parentage tend overwhelmingly to self-identify and be identified by others as “minorities”—despite this population’s significant social, cultural, and geographical integration into the whiter “majority.” The Census Bureau itself perpetuates a skewed understanding of demographic realities in the way it presents race and ethnicity data, which is determined by 1997 Office of Management and Budget guidelines. Alba explains that the bureau classifies mixed-race Americans as minorities in “critical public presentations of data,” with the result that
the great majority of all mixed Americans are therefore added to the minority side of the ledger. This classification decision has a profound effect on public perceptions of demographic change, but it does not correspond with the social realities of the lives of most mixed individuals, who are integrated with whites at least as much as with minorities.
The Census Bureau has also fueled the flames of America’s racial frenzy by publishing projections pointing to a coming majority-minority nation, where minorities will purportedly outnumber whites for the first time. But these projections (which are leaps into the wildly uncertain no matter how you look at it) depend entirely on how we define “white.” Most crucially, should we include the mixed-race population, which is likely to grow exponentially—and unpredictably—in the coming decades? If so, the projections topple, and the “majority-minority nation” looks far from inevitable.
All this is certainly not to say that white people (whoever they are) still run America and always will. It is rather to say that the very notion of “white decline” belongs to the realm of myth, insofar as we imagine a group defined by some objective quality of “whiteness.” It is to say, moreover, that ethno-racial dynamics in America have often been characterized less by exclusion and domination than by an organic process of social and political absorption, which has allowed minority groups to permeate what was once a predominantly white European majority. Yet we hinder the remaining possibilities of absorption when we cling to bad habits of talking about race: assuming that ethno-racial identity is static, pitting the “majority” against the “minorities,” and equating “majority” with an arbitrary definition of “white.” We speak as though America’s future can only be a zero-sum struggle between competing groups, rather than the dynamic fusion of these groups into a common social and political life.
Such habits of thought and speech paint a false (or at least stunted) picture of the American people, both present and future. They disregard America’s proven potential to unite diverse racial and ethnic groups on a basis much deeper than skin color, the basis of liberty and justice for all. And they enable one of our worst collective impulses: relentless race-referencing in the public discourse, such that it seems Americans can’t approach any issue, social, economic, or political, without first filtering it through a racial lens. This race-referencing is bad for society because it’s a shortcut to avoid serious thinking, permitting us to default to one-size-fits-all analyses. And it shapes our imagination, too, training us to see racial division around every corner and undermining our capacity to relate to our fellow citizens as individuals rather than members of demographic groups. Developments like these erode the health of a republic.
Americans should enlarge their imaginations and embrace new ways of thinking about what America is and what it could be. They can start by resisting the urge to use Census Bureau reports as bludgeons to advance oversimplified narratives about race and demographic change in the 21st century.
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