Posted on August 26, 2021

This Is How the White Population Is Actually Changing Based on New Census Data

Hansi Lo Wang and Ruth Talbot, NPR, August 22, 2021

Some news coverage of the latest 2020 census results may have led you to think the white population in the U.S. is shrinking or in decline.

The actual story about the country’s biggest racial group is more complicated than that.

And it’s largely the result of a major shift in how the U.S. census asks about people’s racial identities. Since 2000, the forms for the national, once-a-decade head count have allowed participants to check off more than one box when answering the race question.

While the 2020 census results show fewer people checking off only the “White” box compared with in 2010, there was an almost 316% jump in the number of U.S. residents who identified with the “White” category and one or more of the other racial groups. Their responses boosted the size of a white population that includes anyone who marked “White.”

The new census numbers also show that the more broadly defined white population did not keep pace with the rise in the numbers of people identifying with other racial groups over the past 10 years — with one exception.

Some recent analysis of the new census data, however, has homed in on a more narrowly defined group with falling numbers — people who only marked the “White” box for the race question and did not identify as Hispanic or Latino (which is not a racial category according to federal standards).


The Census Bureau has to follow an official definition of “white” that is set by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. It says anyone with “origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa” should be categorized as white in federal government data about race.

Still, census data is not necessarily a reflection of every U.S. resident’s family tree. This information is produced through how people report their racial identities themselves, and they may have different concepts of who is “white,” which can be influenced by notions of white privilege, skin tone and other complicated factors.


Nowadays, some people who once checked off only the “White” box on forms may feel “more comfortable giving a more nuanced answer” about their origins, says Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at La Salle University who studies white identity, because “there’ll be very little social cost to it.”

“For whites, there’s almost something that I think is attractive, almost chic in some ways where you can claim, ‘Well, yeah, I’m part Native American. Yeah, I’m part Asian,’ ” says Gallagher, who adds that for many, whiteness is still defined by proximity to Blackness. {snip}


Some data crunchers have used historic terms to describe the 2.6% drop in what the bureau has called the “non-Hispanic white alone” population (that is, people who checked off only the “White” box and did not identify as Hispanic or Latino) — the supposed “first” time this group has not grown in the more than two centuries since the country’s original count.


An almost 53% drop in the number of Latinos checking off only the “White” box compared with in 2010 caught the attention of many demographers. While it’s unclear how much of the shift is the result of changes to how the bureau asked about race and how it sorted through the responses, some researchers are wondering whether racial identities among many Latinx census participants are undergoing a sea change.

“It suggests that perhaps that was an illusion that either demographers or others had that the Latinos that were identifying as white were firmly attached to that racial category,” says Rogelio Sáenz, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio whose research has focused on Latinos and racial identity.

The 2020 census results also show a significant rise in Latinos identifying as multiracial, contributing to an 8% increase from 2010 in the number of Latinos identifying with the “White” category.


While white people still make up more than 50% of the country, the Census Bureau’s news conference and press release about the new race and ethnicity data avoided describing that population as the “majority.”

The week before releasing the latest 2020 census results, the bureau revealed in a blog post that it’s moving away from using the concepts of “majority” and “minority” when analyzing the country’s diversity. How to classify certain groups has “become more complex and contested in recent decades, especially as many people may not identify with certain population groups even if that is how they are classified and tabulated per federal standards,” according to the blog post.

Morning — the NYU sociologist and former member of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations — sees the change as a response to criticism the bureau faced after releasing a demographic projection in 2008. By 2042, the bureau announced more than a decade ago, “non-Hispanic, single-race whites” would make up the minority and all other groups would become the new majority in the United States.

Some demographers and other academics have warned the bureau to steer away from that kind of framing, which, Morning says, could be seen as “scaremongering” among segments of the white population who feel anxious about demographic shifts.

The federal government, however, still uses this type of classification for data used to enforce civil rights laws. According to guidance that the Office of Management and Budget released in 2000, a person identifying with the “White” category and with “one minority race” should be “allocated to the minority race.”