This tension about America’s changing demographics runs through much of the current political debate, often explicitly. But this last frame in particular, although it is the one most often used, is probably uniquely misleading in that it presents racial demography as clearly limited when, for many Americans, it is anything but.
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I will preface this conversation by noting that this topic is one I explore extensively in my book considering how power will shift in the coming decades. There are many nuances to this topic that are difficult to capture in the confines of a news article, necessarily, but it is a topic worth considering when the opportunity presents itself.
Such an opportunity arose this week thanks to analysis conducted by KFF, formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation. KFF looked at Census Bureau data on race and discovered a fascinating aspect of Hispanic racial identity: While most Hispanics identified as White in 2010, only a small portion did so in 2021.
You can see this shift below.
This can be confusing to people who don’t keep a close eye on such things. Isn’t their race “Hispanic”? Well no. The government since the 1970s has identified Hispanic as one ethnicity, meaning you are both White and Hispanic, for example, or Black and non-Hispanic. (The Biden administration plans to change that system, it’s worth noting.) So we have data on the racial divide among Hispanics.
But why the change since 2010? Mainly because the Census Bureau changed the way it records race.
“[R]Major improvements in the way the Census and other national surveys ask about race and ethnicity under existing standards have led to increased measures of population diversity,” write KFF’s Samantha Artiga and Drishti Pillai, “largely due to increasing rates of people reporting as other race or multiracial, particularly among the Hispanic population.”
The change among Hispanics was particularly dramatic, but similar changes occurred with Americans overall. For example, in 2010, far more Americans identified themselves as “White single” than as “White and some other race.” But thanks in large part to the aforementioned improvements, more US residents now use the latter descriptor. (The central change is simple enough: The bureau recorded more than just how people described their own racial background.)
Both nationally and in each state, the number of residents identifying as “White and some other race” increased from 2010 to 2020, often more than doubling. The number of residents who identified as “White single” declined in most states.
(In the charts below, those who identify as ethnically Hispanic are separated into their own group.)
In 2010, “White and some other race” was often a small fraction of a state’s population. By 2020, it was often much more important. See the growth in the gray sections in the graphs below. (2010 rates are shown in the inner circle, 2020 in the outer circle.)
About 6 percent of those who identify as non-Hispanic White identify as White and at least one other race. This is more than double the rate in 2010.
The picture painted here is not one of a hard white population subjugating growing numbers of Hispanic, Black and Asian Americans. Rather, it is an inherent complexity in racial identification that makes identifying a putative majority-minority reversal difficult to determine, if such a reversal is even useful as a conceit.
In Myers and Levy’s research, by the way, respondents were offered a third iteration of diversity-shifting discourse: to describe a permanent white majority by including mixed-race people as White. That was the context that sparked the least anger and anxiety — particularly among White Republicans.