Posted on August 16, 2021

Behind the Surprising Jump in Multiracial Americans, Several Theories

Sabrina Tavernise et al., New York Times, August 13, 2021

The Census Bureau released a surprising finding this week: The number of non-Hispanic Americans who identify as multiracial had jumped by 127 percent over the decade. For people who identified as Hispanic, the increase was even higher.

The spike sent demographers scrambling. Was the reason simply that more multiracial babies were being born? Or that Americans were rethinking their identities? Or had a design change in this year’s census form caused the sudden, unexpected shift?

The answer, it seems, is all of the above.

Multiracial Americans are still a relatively small part of the population but the increase over the decade was substantial and, the data shows, often surprising in its geography. The number of Americans who identified as non-Hispanic and more than one race jumped to 13.5 million from 6 million. The number of Hispanic Americans who identify as multiracial grew to 20.3 million from 3 million. In all, the two groups now represent about 10 percent of the population.

The largest increase in non-Hispanic Americans of two or more races was in Oklahoma, followed by Alaska and Arkansas.

Americans who were mixed race recorded a wide range of identities. People who identified themselves as both white and Asian made up about 18 percent of the total number of non-Hispanic multiracial Americans in 2020. Those who reported their race as both white and Black accounted for 20.5 percent. Americans who were both white and Native American were 26 percent of the total, according to Andrew Beveridge, who founded Social Explorer, a data analytics company.

Part of the rise in people identifying as multiracial was simply the growing diversity of the American population. As the newest immigrants, largely from Asia and Latin America, have children and grandchildren, and those Americans form families, they are much more likely to marry outside their racial or ethnic groups than their parents were. Among newlywed Hispanic people who were born in the United States, about 39 percent marry someone who is not Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center. For Asian people, that number is about the same.

But the increase can also be attributed in part to changing ways in which Americans identify themselves — and the ways the government categorizes them.

Census categories are complicated, because race and its boundaries change over time based on shifts in culture and society. Some argue the census can leave the impression that race is a fixed, naturally occurring category that can be neatly counted. Until 2000, the Census Bureau only recognized one response for race.


For the 2020 census, officials tried to more accurately capture the profusion of complexity in American demographics.

Last year’s census form differed substantially from the one in 2010, Rachel Marks, chief of the racial statistics branch at the Census Bureau, said in an interview. Lines were added under the boxes for Black and for white, where respondents could describe in more nuance their racial backgrounds. Coding capacity improved too, capturing far more detail in people’s written answers than before.

Some of those changes, she said, contributed to the rise in the numbers of people who identified as more than one race — though precisely what share, she could not say.


Demographic change was a factor too, though she said it was impossible to say how much of the dramatic growth it accounted for. {snip}


As the children and grandchildren of recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America start families of their own, racial categories in America have again become fluid.

One of the big demographic questions, social scientists said, is what will become of the categories. Particularly salient, they say, is that of white. The declining share of white people as a part of the population has become a part of American politics — as a worry on the right and a cause for optimism on the left.

But while white people have long been at the top of the American social hierarchy, and the category has expanded over time to include the immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who came at the turn of the last century, the profusion of identities in American society and their growing acceptance is raising the question of how much social power whiteness still holds.

To me the interesting story is not the decline of white people as a supposed group but the historical advantages of whiteness and how they may be changing,” said Charles King, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “With the greater power and visibility of people who feel they fit uneasily inside the old census boxes, it’s possible to claim a range of identities without feeling you’re harming your chances of success in American society.”