Posted on December 1, 2020

The Census Predicament: Counting Americans by Race

Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2020

As director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, Kenneth Prewitt oversaw the first decennial count of the new century. When the enormous job of data collection was finally done, he arrived at a stark conclusion: The government should stop asking every American to report their race. {snip}

Prof. Prewitt and many other demographers and sociologists say that the government’s centuries-old classifications no longer reflect realities on the ground, especially when it comes to generations of immigrants who have edged toward assimilation. Racial or ethnic labels are also falling behind the growing diversity within each racial and ethnic group and failing to capture mixed-race people. {snip}


Some demographers and sociologists are pushing for the federal government to revamp its system so that it better reflects America’s changing population. The government relies on census data to enforce civil rights laws, such as measures to ensure fair housing, protect voting rights and provide access to credit. The private sector also relies on the government data for everything from polling to marketing. {snip}

Revising how the government tracks racial change, and how it uses that data to make projections, would also challenge a demographic narrative that has shaped American politics across the ideological spectrum. For two decades, the federal government has projected that whites will lose their numerical majority by the middle of this century. Democrats say that this shift will inevitably increase their political clout because minorities tend to vote for them. The same prediction has driven some white voters, uneasy about immigration and rapid demographic change, to Mr. Trump’s GOP.

Sociologists say that projections for a white minority rely on outdated concepts of race. The federal government generally counts anyone with nonwhite lineage as a minority, a practice that echoes the “one drop” rule that once allowed discrimination against people with even minimal Black ancestry. The Census Bureau currently projects that the share of people defined as white by this restrictive definition will drop below half of the population by 2045. But by using a broader definition—including as “white” anyone with a white parent and a parent of another race—whites would be about 55% of the population and would remain a majority even in 2055.

The government’s majority-minority projections use almost exclusively the “one drop” way of counting. For example, 42 million people checked “Black” on the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey and an additional 4.7 million marked “Black” and another race. But historically, the bureau hasn’t distinguished between these two ways of self-identifying as Black. Moreover, roughly 60% of mixed-race babies have one parent conventionally considered white, and another who is Hispanic, Asian or mixed race (typically white and minority). They are more likely to live alongside whites and, once they grow up, to marry whites than their single-race minority counterparts, research shows.

“The majority-minority story that we’ve all imbibed, that is very widely believed, is a distortion,” said sociologist Richard Alba. In his new book, “The Great Demographic Illusion,” the City University of New York professor argues that the projection assumes a rigidity to racial and ethnic boundaries that does not reflect surging intermarriage or America’s experience with immigration.

The census has tracked the race of Americans since the first count in 1790, when the government tallied the number of Blacks to help quantify the slave population and counted Native Americans because those living outside settled areas weren’t taxed. After the Civil War, the practice continued, and race statistics were often used to reinforce racist practices and ideas, likes bans on racial intermarriage and pseudoscientific research on racial differences.

Once the U.S. toughened civil rights laws in the 1960s, the government began to use race data for the very different purpose of combating discrimination. In 1977, the federal government formalized this system when it adopted four major statistical race categories—white, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Asian or Other Pacific Islander—plus a separate ethnicity category for Hispanics. The federal government did make a major move to recognize multiracial Americans in 2000, when it began letting census respondents check more than one race box. On this year’s census, respondents were free to add details underneath each box, such as “German” below white, “Nigerian” underneath Black or “Navajo Nation” below American Indian. The Census Bureau said it stopped using the “majority-minority” framework in 2018, but the projection that minorities will outnumber whites by 2045 still appears in demographic forecasts the bureau republished as recently as February.


Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, surveyed and conducted focus group interviews with Latino voters in the run-up to the election. He found that a quarter saw themselves as a group that remains distinct over generations, much as Blacks do. But half minimized the importance of race and said they believed Latinos can get ahead through hard work, or they considered themselves more akin to European immigrants who eventually became part of the mainstream. This latter group was more likely to support Mr. Trump than those who saw more continuity in their racial identity. {snip}


History suggests that the mainstream shifts and grows as assimilation propels once-marginalized groups up the socioeconomic ladder, said Prof. Alba. It’s what happened after World War II to Italian and Polish Catholics and Eastern European Jews whose parents arrived a century ago in the last great immigration surge. There is evidence that it’s now happening among Hispanics and Asians as they intermarry with whites. Today, more than one in 10 babies born in the U.S. have one white and one nonwhite parent. “When you add up all the facts, whites will be the effective majority of the electorate at midcentury, and maybe beyond,” said Prof. Alba, who is himself the descendant of Italian and Irish immigrants.

Blacks have been a notable exception to this assimilation. {snip}