America is already more diverse than you may realize

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

They found that talking about the increase itself caused more whites to feel hopeful or excited, including about half of white Republicans. But talk of whites becoming a minority led most white respondents to express anger or anxiety — including three-quarters of white Republicans.

This tension about America’s changing demographics runs through the current political conversation, often vividly. But that latter frame in particular, while a commonly used one, is perhaps uniquely misleading when it clearly limits racial demographics to, for many Americans, anything but.

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Let me preface this conversation by noting that I explore this topic at length in my book, considering how power will change in future decades. There are many nuances to this topic that are difficult to capture within the confines of a news article, but it is something to consider when the opportunity presents itself.

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Such an opportunity emerged this week in an analysis previously conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation KFF. KFF looked at Census Bureau data on race and found 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 change below.

It can be confusing for people who don’t keep track of such things closely. Isn’t his race “Hispanic”? Well, no. The government has recognized Hispanic since the 1970s Ethnicity, meaning you are white and Hispanic, for example, or black and non-Hispanic. (The Biden administration plans to change this system, which is worth noting.) So we have data on the racial divide among Hispanics.

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

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“[R]Sophisticated revisions to how the Census and other national surveys ask about race and ethnicity within existing standards have led to an increase in population diversity,” write KFF’s Samantha Artiga and Drishti Pillai, “mostly due to increases in the shares of people of other races or multiracial, particularly in the Hispanic population.

The change among Hispanics was particularly dramatic, but similar changes occurred with Americans as a whole. For example, in 2010, more Americans identified themselves as “white only” than identified as “white and other races.” But thanks largely to the revisions mentioned above, most US residents now use the latter description. (The central shift is quite simple: the bureau captures how people describe their own ethnic background.)

Nationally and in every state, the number of residents identifying as “white and some other race” increased from 2010 to 2020, often doubling. The number of residents who identify as “white only” has decreased in most states.

(In the charts below, those who identify racially as Hispanic are separated into their own group.)

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In 2010, “whites and some other races” are generally a small slice of the state’s population. By 2020, it was probably more important. See the increase in gray segments in the charts below. (2010 percentage shown in inner circle; 2020 in outer circle.)

About 6 percent of those who identify as non-Hispanic white identify as white and of at least one other race. This is double the percentage in 2010.

The picture painted here is not of a hard-and-fast white population that is subsumed by growing numbers of Hispanic, black, and Asian Americans. Instead, it is the complexities that exist in ethnic identity that make it difficult to recognize the majority-minority flip, even harder to determine whether such a flip is even egocentrically useful.

In Myers and Levy’s research, incidentally, respondents were given a third iteration of the discussion of changing diversity: explaining a permanent white majority by including people with mixed-race backgrounds as white. It’s a framework that causes the least anger and anxiety — especially among white Republicans.


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