Millions of Americans Changed Their Racial or Ethnic Identity from One Census to the Next

D'vera Cohn, Pew Research, May 5, 2014

Millions of Americans counted in the 2000 census changed their race or Hispanic-origin categories when they filled out their 2010 census forms, according to new research presented at the annual Population Association of America meeting last week. Hispanics, Americans of mixed race, American Indians and Pacific Islanders were among those most likely to check different boxes from one census to the next.

The researchers, who included university and government population scientists, analyzed census forms for 168 million Americans, and found that more than 10 million of them checked different race or Hispanic-origin boxes in the 2010 census than they had in the 2000 count. Smaller-scale studies have shown that people sometimes change the way they describe their race or Hispanic identity, but the new research is the first to use data from the census of all Americans to look at how these selections may vary on a wide scale.


Why? There are many possibilities, although the researchers did not present any hard conclusions. By some measures, the data provide more evidence of Americans’ puzzlement about how the census asks separately about race and ethnicity. (The Census Bureau is considering revising its race and ethnicity questions for the next census, in 2020, in hopes of matching better how Americans think about this topic.) But there could be other reasons, too, such as evolving self-identity or benefits associated with being identified with some groups.


People of every race or ethnicity group altered their categories on the census form, but some groups had more turnover than others. Relatively few people who called themselves non-Hispanic white, black or Asian in 2000 changed their category in 2010, Liebler said. Responses by Hispanics dominated the total change, she said, but there was major turnover within some smaller race groups as well.

The largest number of those who changed their race/ethnicity category were 2.5 million Americans who said they were Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000, but a decade later, told the census they were Hispanic and white, preliminary data showed. Another 1.3 million people made the switch in the other direction. Other large groups of category-changers were more than a million Americans who switched from non-Hispanic white to Hispanic white, or the other way around.

Hispanics account for most of the growing number and share of Americans who check “some other race” on the census form. Many do not identify with a specific racial group or think of Hispanic as a race, even though it is an ethnicity in the federal statistical system. Census officials added new instructions on the 2010 census form stating that Hispanic ethnicity is not a race in an attempt to persuade people to choose a specific group. (That change, as well as other wording edits in the instructions to respondents between 2000 and 2010 may be one reason some people switched. The order of the questions and the offered categories did not change.) The Census Bureau is also testing a new race and Hispanic question that combines all the options in one place, rather than asking separately about race and Hispanic origin.

More than 775,000 switched in one direction or the other between white and American Indian or only white, according to preliminary data. A separate paper presented at the conference reported “remarkable turnover” from 2000 to 2010 among those describing themselves as American Indian. Ever since 1960, the number of American Indians has risen more rapidly than could be accounted for by births or immigration.

There also was considerable change within a decade’s time among some smaller race groups. For example, only one-third of Americans who checked more than one race in 2000 kept the same categories in 2010, according to preliminary data. Only two-thirds of non-Hispanic single-race Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders kept the same categories.

Previous research on people’s racial self-identification has found that they may change categories for many reasons, said demographer Sharon Lee of the University of Victoria in Canada, at the population conference. The question mode–whether people are asked in person, on a paper form, on the phone or online–makes a difference. Some people may change their category after they find out they had an ancestor of a different race, she said. Or they may decide there are benefits (such as priority in college admissions) to including themselves in a certain group.

Some category-changers were children in 2000 whose race was filled in by their parents, but by 2010 were old enough to choose for themselves, which may account for some of the change. {snip}


Topics: ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.
  • dd121

    Of course a lot of people want to be considered to be minorities. They then have the potential for more free stuff.

    • Right now this is true, but if we look at counties, and governments that the minority pushed the majority, you know what they all had in common, they became faciests. in one form or the other.

    • Urbane Neanderthal

      Hispanic literally is a social construct though.
      It encompasses anything from 100% African to 100% European to 100% indigenous Mexicans, Central and South Americans.

      • DudeWheresMyCountry?

        By definition being Hispanic means you are from Spain, Portugal or Andorra. None of the flat nosed pheasants who claim to be Hispanic really are in California. I’ve been telling AMers for years to drop that and call Mexicans brown. They call us White, I call them Brown. They say gringo, I say beaner. Any questions?

        • Jesse_from_Sweden

          Call a spaniard a hispanic and he’s likely to punch you in the face.
          They are quite adamant that they are europeans, not hispanics.
          Hispanics are mongrels from the spanish speaking parts of America (are brazilians classed as hispanics? I doubt that german-speaking argentinians are).

          • DudeWheresMyCountry?

            Yes, they realize the true meaning has been mongrelized and they now want nothing to do with it. The term comes from Latin as the Romans called what is now Spain and Portugal Hispania. Just like when Browns call themselves Latin I say, you are from central Italy?? Such ignorant people.

  • borogirl54

    Hispanic and white is actually the same race. Both are considered Caucasian. Mixed race would be someone who was white/Asian or Hispanic/Black etc.

    • Anon

      There is no such thing as a “Hispanic”. People from EVERY country where Spanish is spoken, consider themselves as white, black, or Amerind. The three groups do not get along and are not tolerated in the same geographic locations. Most Spanish speaking countries practice overt white supremacy. Some will actually cull the non-white populations with murder squads, if they get out of line.
      The term “Hispanic” was invented by jewish liberal communists. Since the 1920’s, possibly earlier, they have been working to change the ethnic make up of the US via changes in immigration law. Kennedy (a junior senator at the time, much more interested in booze and whores) was just a face plastered on a 100% jewish run 1965 immigration law.
      Part of that garbage is tricking white Americans about the nature of the actual people coming here. Back in the day, when you used the term “Hispanic”, it was assumed you were talking about a white, upper class Spanish speaking person from either Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico or points south. When actually bringing people to this country who spoke Spanish, however, it very much was an issue of no-whites allowed.
      You understand? No one self-identifies as “Hispanic”. What they want you to believe when they use that word is Spanish speaking white. What they REALLY mean is Spanish speaking black or amerind, depending on the geographic location. Mexican beaner in California. Haitian if florida. And so on.

  • So CAL Snowman

    Every single White high school kid in America, when applying to college, should check the “black” box when it comes to race. This would ensure that a preponderance of White kids are accepted into the upper tier universities via affirmative action. The institutions would have no way to combat this as their own anthropology departments state that race is just a social construct. Imagine the chaos and firestorm that this would create.

    • Romulus

      Especially as the fools have been teaching the false narrative of “Out of Afreaka” in anthropology.

    • dd121

      I love it So Cal, that’s brilliant. The libs coudln’t come back and say you lied, just assert whatever you want to libs and they have to acknowledge it as reality.

      I argued with dozens of libs on CNN today about Hillary’s culpability for Benghazi. They just denied and denied. They even denied the basic facts that made Hillary look bad. It’s the lib way. haha

    • DudeWheresMyCountry?

      I’ve been saying that to people for years. In 2010 when the census came to my door I insisted, to the poll takers frustration that I was Black. I made him enter it that way. I have several times applied for jobs and stated on applications I was Hispanic. Anything I can do to undermine and confuse the situation.

  • To pee off the administrators at my university, I changed my ethnicity from white to native american. Regularly, I would get an email or a call asking me if I wanted to change it back to white. I’m not sure why they were so upset. I guess because I had the guts to mock their system of racial spoils. I’m reasonably certain this is one reason I was targeted for termination after 30 years and in spite of tenure, which is a farce protecting minorities but not really anyone they don’t like.

  • KevinPhillipsBong

    We should encourage our brown friends to self-identify as mestizo. It’s much more accurate. When I say, “Imagine a Hispanic,” I’d bet for 99% of you, what you are imagining is a mestizo (as opposed to a Vicente Fox or Roberto Clemente type).

    • Romulus

      I agree completely.
      The term mulatto should also be used instead of biracial.

  • CourtneyfromAlabama

    There is a lot that is speculative about censuses recently.

    For instance, the US ethnic mosaic map that shows up all over the internet and in Wikipedia articles, makes it look as if the German ethnic group has taken over 80% of the country. Meanwhile, the English only occupy Utah and New England, while the South is designated as “American” (what Southerners call themselves when they have English and Scotch-Irish ancestory going back to the Revolution).

    I obviously see Germans as close brothers and have nothing against them, but as a British American, I find Wikipedia’s depiction very insulting. Is this their way of showing that the nationality who founded the country is almost non-existent? Think about it.

    My parents have a National Geographic atlas in their house that shows an ethnic map that is much more accurate (from the 90s). Again, I am mainly speaking of the white ethnicities in this case, which haven’t changed really from the 90s.

    The map my parents own shows the English dominating the South, the lower Midwest, parts of the upper Midwest (like Southern Ohio and Southern Indiana), most of New England, and much of the West, including California. I would say that that map is far more accurate.

    Again, I have nothing against the Germans, but it disgusts me seeing my ancestoral group diminished on these maps that float around the internet. If you don’t think that this is being promoted for a reason, then think again. It is their way of diminishing what is left of the Founding Fathers’ ethnicity.

    • Romulus

      Hello Courtney.
      I trust you enjoyed the conference.
      As the gentleman from France and I agree, we should see our racial brothers and sisters as sharing common blood and not tribal differences. View your people from shared haplotypes and not so much national or cultural divides.

      For example, Essex,Wessex,and Sussex are named directly for the germanic saxons, while east Anglia is named for the germanic Angli/Anglo’s. English itself is a germanic language.
      It is also worthy to note that the Gaelic people were barely distinguishable from the germanic tribes genetically before the onset of Roman invasions.

      Incidentally, the correct term is SCOT/Irish. Scotch is a whiskey not a people.

      • CourtneyfromAlabama

        Hi Romulus, it was nice meeting you.

        Unfortunately, I agree with the overall consensus that was brought up at the conference more than once…..that we are such a diverse people, that there is nothing wrong with maintaining our regional differences, while fighting for the common goal of our people as a whole.

        And, just because I am a proud Southerner with British heritage, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to help my fellow whites. In fact, I said above that I consider Germans my brothers. Didn’t I?

        I would like to see the different nationalities of Europe preserved, just as I would like to see regional identities over here preserved. It doesn’t mean we can’t stand up for our race as a whole at the same time when it comes to big picture issues.

        I wish well for whites everywhere, and I put them above other races. But there are also groups within my race that I have a closer affinity for than others. And to go even further, I have a greater affinity for my own family than fellow Southerners, and so forth. Is there something wrong with feeling something so natural?

        • Romulus

          I understand your POV, truly. Part of my ancestry is directly linked to a founding council member of Jamestown VA circa 1607.

          While I share an affinity for all the different cultures of the white race, I don’t not wish a revival of the old divisions. Especially here or in the old world (France,Germany,Britain) lest we enter into another round of fraternal suicide.

          I found RamZpaul very funny. His light heartedness helped lend an comfortable atmosphere among the participants.

      • Martel

        I just can’t comprehend why some still think national conflicts are important. We are all under threat, Germany can’t survive long(or peacefully) when France is in the multicultural gutter, and so on.

        • CourtneyfromAlabama

          Martel, it is only natural to have a closer affinity for your own family than for others in your own ethnicity, and a closer affinity for others in your own ethnicity than others in your race, and finally for others in your race over those of other races. I don’t recall saying anything above that promoted conflict. You can love those who are closest to you while fighting for your extended family. It is natural.

          • Martel

            The feeling is not a problem, I even appreciate it, I want Italy to remain Italian like I want Germany to remain German. This is not possible without such affinity, but when people start issues over it, that it what I dislike. I don’t mean to say you did this.

            I disagree about the last part. An internationalist movement crossing borders is much more effective then small strictly national movements.

          • CourtneyfromAlabama

            Thanks, for the feedback. In regards to an international movement, perhaps I didn’t clarify that well. I support an international movement overall, supporting our race. But I want to maintain our regional identities at the same time. That was what I meant.

          • Medizin

            Yes, without question European countries should maintain ethnic sovereignty, but here in the U.S., it creates divisions. This country has been through that and we must not go down that road again.

          • CourtneyfromAlabama

            “This country has been through that and we mus not go down that road again”.

            Are you referring to the Civil War? All the more reason for my people down here to want to maintain our identity.

          • Medizin

            “Are you referring to the Civil War?”


            Fairly serious prejudice against Germans, Polish, Italians, Irish, and so on, during the early 1900’s and before.

            All Germans were Nazi’s. Called “swarthy” in Pennsylvania, where many settled, meaning dark, comparing them to blacks, which those in PA were and actually are very light skinned, pale. Children were beaten by other European children. Nothing was done about it. It wasn’t safe for teenagers in some areas to walk alone.

            Lots of Polish, Irish, German, and Italian jokes, derogatory names. Irish suffered a significant brunt of it.

            But, as Europeans assimilated, they found much in common, began to see themselves as Americans rather than from a European country, moved out of their ethnic enclaves and started living together in communities . Prejudice faded over the years which is why I said we don’t want to go down that road again.

            Whites have a history of fighting each other. That’s the danger.

          • Medizin

            “closer affinity for others in your own ethnicity than others in your race”

            I don’t feel that way, at all. I see White Europeans, not ethnicities. We know from their surnames where they are from, but should it matter how we interact with them?

            The League of the South claims the majority of Whites in the South are Scots, Irish, and Welsh, Southern Celts. English Northerners came from different parts of England than the Welsh did.

            It’s perplexing to me why Southern Whites call themselves ‘Americans’ rather than Scots, Irish, and Welsh. Are they a mix of two or three? The mosaic map leads one to believe this is what people said when they filled out the census in 2000.

            The same with Germans. The map reflects what people marked on the forms. According to Census figures, Germans are the largest ethnicity in the country.

          • kikz2

            many more than 3… on both sides, i can genetically claim Irish,Scot/Irish, Scot, English, German, French Huguenot, and various nordic clans. Unlike high Germans, some of us who share ancestry are quite the mutts….it depends on how much one can trace of one’s origins….

            since understanding my heritage at a young age, I have never referred to myself as American, but a Southerner from N. America geographically, but most decidedly not American.

          • Medizin

            “some of us who share ancestry are quite the mutts”
            Appears to be quite common.

          • Mary

            Maybe mutts to a point, although these ethnicities do not actually differ that much from each other…unlike the third world maelstrom that has descended upon many of our ethnically European lands.

          • kikz2

            agreed, all White, Western European……..

          • Mary

            Many Southern Whites trace much or all of their ancestry to the pre-Revolutionary period. Their families have been in America for so long, that connection to a particular Euro ethnicity is mainly an abstraction.
            Most Southerners have Scots-Irish and English ancestry. Some assert that the Scots-Irish and Celtic heritage in the South is predominant, but many English settled the South as well. There were also a few Germans and others such as French.
            Also, Americans tend to regard British surnames as “general American” rather than “ethnic” per se. My third-generation Italian-American husband is much closer to his ethnic roots than I am to mine, since my latest ancestor to arrive in America did so around 1760. Even though I have a keen interest in and regard for Britain, it is difficult for me to “feel” English or Scottish at this point.

          • CourtneyfromAlabama

            Not every white person in America is a mixture of different European ethnicities. Some of us are more homogenous than others. Let us associate with our ethnicities, as well as our respective regional identities if we want to. It is perfectly healthy and natural and normal.

            It is unrealistic to expect all whites in this country to come together as one in the manner you are speaking of anyways. We can come together as whites in the fight against Third Worlders without meshing ourselves together. We already have so many differences among ourselves as it is. Ignoring those differences is ignoring reality.

            Some of us come from regions that are older in culture than other regions. We have a good reason to be proud of that. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to stand with other whites in this country for a big picture cause.

          • Medizin

            “Not every white person in America is a mixture of different European ethnicities. Some of us are more homogenous than others. Let us associate with our ethnicities, as well as our respective regional identities if we want to.”

            Yes, I am one of them. We still have ethnic enclaves as observed on the map. I don’t think it’s wrong to want to live with your kind or in the region you prefer. That’s why most of us live where we do. But, I’m afraid, that is the past. Our regional cultures are eroding by the massive numbers of non-Whites unlike us. If we want to live with Whites, survive, we might not have a choice where we live in the future or the ethnicities.

            If the government gave Whites land somewhere, say, the mid-northern part of the country where there are fewer non-Whites, would you move there knowing there would be Italians, Germans, Polish, French, including English, Welsh, Irish, Scots, and other Euro-Americans from the Northeast, Midwest, West, and South living there? Let’s say they would probably be conservative or traditionalists since liberals wouldn’t want to move away from non-Whites. Ha! Could you adjust to the new White culture that would be created? Would you be comfortable living closely with other Whites not of your ancestry and region?

            Or do you prefer that regions of the country be set aside for specific White ethnicities and cultures. English live in one region, French in another, Italians, Germans, Irish, Scots, etc. What if all Whites wanted land to preserve their own ethnicities and cultures. Is that feasible?

            Could you go through the extreme initial hardships of a secession, possibly, a civil war? We know the government said secession is not a possibility. That means a revolution or getting other states to sign off on it.

            No need to answer those questions, but something to think about.

            I think White regions throughout the country will occur naturally through ‘White Flight,’ as they are now. It’s obvious, there are not enough Whites interested in going the distance to preserve our race. In the current climate, it’s impossible to plan a region without government intervention, but it might occur naturally. Unfortunately, Whites will have to do the moving.

            When a large enough region is established, possibly, legal action can take place, or secession. I’m dreaming, too. But, I do not see a strong enough White movement ever occurring that will support our goals. If it does, it probably will be too late. I see serious conflicts and division, now, that are hindering progress within the small numbers interested in our cause.

          • CourtneyfromAlabama

            I think you are painting two extreme scenarios above (either me having to chose between moving to a white homeland with multiple European ethnicities or dividing the country between white ethnicities).

            It isn’t necessary to do the first option, and I have never advocated the second option. Just because one option doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean the other option is, well, the only other option hands down.

            I never said we should divide among ethnicities,….. I said I like the regional differences as they are.

            As for moving to a white homeland with all ethnicities, I made it clear above that I am willing to join with other whites in order to do what needs to be done.

          • Medizin

            Happy to hear that.

          • CourtneyfromAlabama

            Germans are the largest ethnicity only when all the British ethnicities are divided up. Southern Americans call themselves “American” because they have been here for a very long time, and most of them don’t research their European ancestory (I do).

          • Medizin

            “most of them don’t research their European ancestory”

            Aren’t there quite a few Northern Americans here for a very long time? They didn’t call themselves ‘Americans’ on the census.

            If Southerners who marked ‘American’ don’t actually know where their ancestors are from, how do we know they are mostly Scots/Irish and English? What about those who married outside their ethnicity, or are mixed? Their surnames would not represent their ethnicity.

            What is interesting is you say Southern Scots-Irish and English were specific previously, but called themselves ‘Americans’ in 2000. How did they know their ancestry before 2000, but not on the 2000 Census form? Why did they change?

            The Census Bureau pointed this out somewhere on their website. It appears they were curious as to why the number of ‘Americans’ was so elevated in 2000 compared to previous years.

            As for Germans being the majority ethnicity, whether it is true or not depended on how Southerners marked their forms.

            Don’t know if all counties did this, but mine sent a separate form asking to confirm my name, address, race and country of origin. Might have been passed on to the Census Bureau.

          • CourtneyfromAlabama

            You are picking at my comments a little too much here. Yes, there are Northerners who have been here since the beginning. But the South has a higher percentage of people going back to the Revolution than the North does.

            In regards to your very detail oriented questions about Southerners knowing what they are, there are plenty of other ways to keep track of which groups live where…..for instance,…..they have been keeping up with who has been moving in and out of the South for decades. Most Southerners know what state their great great great grandparents were in and other ancestors at certain times, and they know if they have ancestors who were here during the Civil War and before. If most Southerners can say that, I think it is safe to know through that as well as many other methods what the ancestoral makeup of the South is.

            And yes, surnames play a big part in all of this. The Swedes of Minnesota know they are Swedes, and Minnesota also has the corresponding last names. The same goes for other European ethnicities that are more recent (Italians in NYC etc….).

            If that is the case, then why should we ignore the overwhelming British surnames in the South, and say “they don’t mean anything to begin with”? The instances you bring up like…”what if someone is mixed?”……are exceptions to the rule based on an assumption despite the overwhelming evidence otherwise (looking at the dynamics of the South as a whole).

          • Medizin

            Thanks for that info.

        • Romulus

          I’d love to see a true pan European identity but their is also the majesty of the different groups themselves. The beauty of French poetry, Gallic folk music , Robert burns, James Joyce, German composers, the English bard.
          There are too many to list them all. The achievements of so many will prove to be difficult in making a singular identity.

    • dd121

      Your first mistake was going to Wikipedia for any information.

    • Jesse_from_Sweden

      I think the wikipedia article goes after census, meaning what people themselves put down.
      While your atlas might instead go after other criteria.

      This explains a lot of the “american” answers, people who classify themselves as americans due to patriotism rather than anything else.

      You also have to see to population density, and the fact that the wikipedia map (if we are thinking of the same one) only shows the largest group in an area.
      So one specific group could be 20% everywhere, but still not show up on the map despite being the largest group overall, due to being spread out.
      It essentially only shows where those groups are concentrated.
      And the german immigrant became very concentrated and therefore show up a lot on these maps.

      And also, population density. You say “only” New England, but unless I’m mistaken, New England is the most densely populated area in USA. A lot of british settled there early on, during the colonial era, while germans came later and therefore most of them had to move further inland to new areas if they wanted land of their own.

      • CourtneyfromAlabama

        Thanks, Jesse, I liked your explanation. That makes sense.

  • Anon

    I bought a number of guns this year. I couldn’t help but notice the specific and blatant way they probed race on the forms (which is, by the way, highly illegal in the US, at least). First box is basically….are you Hispanic, Spanish speaking or of Spanish speaking origin….yes/no. Second question….what is your race…check one…..the white checkbox is labeled specifically, non-Hispanic, non-Spanish speaking white…..cough.
    I wonder what would happen if I made a stink over not checking any of those boxes and insisting that what my race is, is literally none of the business of either the seller, those doing a NICS check (handguns only) or anyone, in any way, making note of the fact that I just bought another firearm for my collection.

    But, of course, race doesn’t exist….right?

  • NeanderthalDNA

    Some definitely are. Others may have a little mix, but if they act White and live White, good folk.

    Many Hispanics have the opportunity to self identify as White, as do many south of the border.

    Recent revelations regarding the racial nature of the earliest Amerind settlers of the Americas, that they were themselves roughly 1/4 to 1/3 Caucasian, further argues for the “Whiteness” of many Hispanics who are mixed with native populations, not unlike many Anglo Whites.

    Those Hispanics who consider themselves White should oppose unlimited immigration. Many decent, hard working Hispanics came here precisely because here is here and there is there. Now many appear to want to make “here” “there”, and this therefore begs the question – why come in the first place?

    Cutting immigration is the best answer for Hispanic citizens of the country. Viva Sra. Maria Conchita Gonzalez for supporting anti-immigration candidates, and any Hispanics like her…

  • Jesse_from_Sweden

    Well, they were invaded and colonized by germanic tribes at least three times in the past two thousand years or so.

    First the Angles and Saxons during the migration era, then vikings during the viking era and then finally normands right after the viking era (normands essentially being french-speaking vikings).

  • DudeWheresMyCountry?

    Not our race, they are trying to eradicate us.