America is already more diverse than you may realize


A few years ago, demographers Dowell Myers and Maurice Levy conducted an experiment to gauge how Americans were responding to the country’s changing demographics. They presented a group of respondents with news stories outlining the increased diversity of the population in a variety of ways.

They found that talking about this increase alone made most white respondents feel hopeful or enthusiastic, including about half of white Republicans. But talk of whites becoming a minority prompted most white respondents to express anger or concern — including three-quarters of white Republicans.

This tension about America’s changing demographics runs through much of the current political conversation, often explicitly. But the latter framing in particular, although it is the most commonly used, is arguably uniquely misleading because it presents racial demographics as clearly circumscribed 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 at length in my book, considering how power will shift in the coming decades. There are many nuances to this topic that are difficult to capture within the confines of a news article, but it is a topic worth considering when the opportunity arises.

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Such a possibility emerged this week thanks to an analysis conducted by KFF, the former Kaiser Family Foundation. KFF looked at Census Bureau data on race and found a fascinating aspect of Hispanic racial identity: While most Hispanics identified as white in 2010, only a small fraction did in 2021.

You can see this change below.

This can be confusing for people who don’t follow such things closely. Isn’t their race “Hispanic”? Well, no. Since 1970, the government has identified Hispanics as ethnic origin, meaning you are both white and Hispanic, for example, or black and non-Hispanic. (It’s worth noting that the Biden administration plans to change that system.) So we have data on racial segmentation among Hispanics.

But why the change since 2010? Mostly because the Census Bureau changed the way it records race.

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“[R]recent refinements to the way the Census and other national surveys ask about race and ethnicity within existing standards have led to increased measures of population diversity,” write Samantha Artiga and Drishti Pillai of KFF, “in large part because of the increased share of people reporting as some other race or multiracial, especially among the Hispanic population.

The change among Hispanics was particularly dramatic, but similar changes occurred among Americans in general. For example, in 2010, many more Americans identified as “white only” than as “white and some other races.” But thanks in large part to the aforementioned improvements, more US residents now use the latter descriptor. (The central change is quite simple: The Bureau has captured more of how people describe their own racial origins.)

Both nationally and in every 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 identifying as “white only” has declined in most states.

(In the charts below, those who identify as ethnically Hispanic are separated into their own group.)

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In 2010, “white and some other races” were often a small fraction of the state’s population. By 2020, it is often much more significant. See the zoom in the gray segments of the charts below. (2010 percent shown in inner circle; 2020 in outer circle.)

About 6 percent of those who identify as non-Hispanic white identify as white and at least one other race. That’s more than double the percentage in 2010.

The picture painted here is not of a staunch white population being swallowed up by growing numbers of Latinos, blacks, and Asian Americans. Instead, 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 study, among others, respondents were offered a third iteration of diversity change discussions: describing a permanent white majority by including people of mixed race as white. It was the frame that caused the least anger and anxiety — especially among white Republicans.


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