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).
"There are a lot of complications involved with how we categorize race, including the white population," says Jennifer Richeson, a psychologist at Yale University who studies racial identity. "Why are many of us so interested in watching what's happening with this specific group of non-Hispanic white Americans? It's puzzling to me that we are so concerned about it."
For decades in the news media, a population the bureau recently described as "White alone non-Hispanic" has become synonymous with the white population of the United States. But the country's ever-changing ideas about race and ethnicity are continuing to push academics, policymakers and other members of the public to reassess whiteness and the census data used to redraw voting maps, combat racial discrimination, guide federal funding and inform research and planning for the next 10 years.
Here are other reasons why the story the 2020 census results tell about the white population is not as straightforward as you may think:
An increasingly multiracial U.S. complicates who is considered "white"
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.
Richard Alba, a sociologist at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York who has advised the bureau about statistics on racial and ethnic diversity, argues for a broad definition of whiteness when analyzing census data, especially as more children are born to one parent who identifies as white and another who does not.
"Sometimes they think of themselves as mixed. Sometimes they think of themselves as members of a single group, and often that group is white," says Alba, who has written about how the descendants of Catholic, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox immigrants from Europe assimilated into mainstream U.S. society. "I don't see how we can claim that white is a single thing at this point. Perhaps we should say white represents a spectrum more than it does a well-defined group."
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. "What trumps everything typically is the darkness of your skin color. Racism is still very much alive and well."
Comparing race data over time can be like comparing "apples and oranges"
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.
But comparing race data from the 2020 census with data from earlier counts can be a bit like comparing "apples and oranges," notes Ann Morning, a sociologist and demographer at New York University who has served on one of the bureau's committees of outside advisers.
"It's true that 'White' is the single race category that has always been with us since our very first census in 1790. But in fact, other ways in which we have shaped the census actually have an effect on that white count," Morning says. "It's not just a straightforward line over time in measuring that population."
The way the census has asked about race and ethnicity has shifted decade to decade. Until 1960, every person's racial identity for the U.S. census was determined by a government worker. In 1970, the bureau asked a sample of households about "Mexican," "Puerto Rican," "Cuban," "Central or South American" and "Other Spanish" origins before asking the entire country about their Hispanic origins beginning with the 1980 census.
The bureau has warned data users that because of changes to how the race question was asked, as well as how responses were processed and categorized, for the 2020 count, comparisons with 2010 numbers "should be made with caution."
There could be "unexpected differences," the bureau has said, that may not necessarily be just the result of demographic shifts. Some of the bureau's changes for the 2020 census may have increased the number of people recorded as identifying with the "White" category and at least one of the other racial categories. Last year's census, like the 2010 count, may have also overcounted the "non-Hispanic white alone" population.
A narrative focused on "decline" could further fuel far-right, white racial extremism
Many people tracking far-right, white racial extremism have been concerned that misleading headlines about the new census data showing a "declining" white population in the U.S. could generate propaganda.
"I think the worst way in which these data can get used, and have gotten used, is by white nationalists who parrot things like, 'Our group is being wiped out. We are under threat,' " says Richeson, the Yale psychologist who has studied how white people in general react to changing demographics.
A narrative of a shrinking white population, Richeson and other researchers have found, tends to foster angst among white people about the future of their political representation and whether their "fortunes might be in jeopardy."
While this kind of anxiety represents a disconnect with the reality of the vast racial disparities in wealth and health, Richeson is concerned that it could fuel more extreme forms of political gerrymandering to manipulate election outcomes or lower support for government efforts to increase racial equity.
"We still live in a society where white Americans, no matter how you count them, continue to have political dominance and economic dominance," Richeson says.
Many Latinos are reevaluating the "White" box on census forms
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.
Tomás Jiménez, a sociologist at Stanford University who studies how immigration patterns and policy have influenced Mexican Americans' identities, says the racialized politics during former President Donald Trump's administration helped set the stage for a generational shift that was also driven by the growing prominence of second-generation Latinos whose parents immigrated to the United States.
"Older people who came up in the middle of the 20th century were taught that Hispanics were white and that there might be a benefit to claiming whiteness," Jiménez says. "The U.S.-born individuals who are now answering the census have been socialized in an era of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino national politics. They are checking the census boxes with a different sensibility."
In the future, white people likely won't be the majority (and neither will any other racial group)
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."
Nonetheless, in the coming decades, this way of classifying the country's racial groups may become obsolete.
"Given the trends that we're seeing, it's quite likely that in our lifetimes, no one racial group will be in the majority in the sense of having more than 50% of the population," Morning says. "At that point, it won't even really make sense to talk about majorities or minorities."