The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America is already more diverse than you may realize

A man wearing a mask walks past posters encouraging participation in the 2020 Census on April 1, 2020, in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
4 min

A few years ago, demographers Dowell Myers and Morris Levy conducted an experiment aimed at evaluating how Americans responded to the country’s changing demographic composition. They presented a group of respondents with news stories framing the increased diversity of the population in different ways.

They found that talking about this increase by itself led most White respondents to feel hopeful or enthusiastic, including about half of White Republicans. But talking about Whites becoming a minority caused most White respondents to express anger or anxiety — including three-quarters of White Republicans.

This tension about America’s changing demography runs through a lot of the current political conversation, often explicitly. But that latter framing in particular, despite being the one that’s most commonly used, is probably uniquely misleading in that it presents racial demography as clearly bounded when, for many Americans, it’s anything but.

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I’ll preface this conversation by noting that this subject is one I explore at length in my book considering how power will shift in future decades. There’s a lot of nuance to this subject that is hard to capture in the constraints of a news article, necessarily, but it’s a subject that is worth considering when the opportunity presents itself.

Such an opportunity emerged 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 fraction did in 2021.

You can see that shift below.

This may be confusing to people who don’t track such things closely. Isn’t their race “Hispanic”? Well, no. The government has since the 1970s identified Hispanic as an ethnicity, meaning that you are both White and Hispanic, for example, or Black and non-Hispanic. (The Biden administration plans to change this system, it’s worth noting.) So we have data on racial segmentation among Hispanics.

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

“[R]ecent refinements to how the Census and other national surveys ask about race and ethnicity within the existing standards have resulted in increased measures of population diversity,” KFF’s Samantha Artiga and Drishti Pillai write, “largely due to increases in the shares of people reported as some other race or multiracial, particularly among the Hispanic population.”

The change among Hispanics was particularly dramatic, but similar shifts happened with Americans overall. For example, in 2010, far more Americans identified themselves as “White alone” than as “White and some other race.” But largely thanks to the aforementioned refinements, more U.S. residents now use the latter descriptor. (The central change is fairly simple: The bureau captured more of how people described their own racial backgrounds.)

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 alone” fell in most states.

(On the charts below, those identifying as ethnically Hispanic are separated into their own group.)

In 2010, “White and some other race” was often a small sliver of a state’s population. By 2020, it was often a much more significant one. See the increase in the gray segments on the charts below. (2010 percentages are shown in the inner circle; 2020 in the outer circle.)

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

The picture painted here is not one of a hard-and-fast White population being subsumed by growing numbers of Hispanic, Black and Asian Americans. Instead, it’s of an existing complexity in racial identification that makes identification of a supposed majority-minority flip hard to determine, if such a flip is even useful as a conceit.

In Myers’s and Levy’s research, incidentally, respondents were offered a third iteration of discussions about changing diversity: describing a lasting White majority by including people with mixed-race backgrounds as White. This was the framing that triggered the least anger and anxiety — particularly among White Republicans.