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NewsWire: 9/27/21

  • The first 2020 Census results showed that America’s white population shrank for the first time ever. But behind this headline is a more complicated story reflecting shifts in how people self-identify. (The Wall Street Journal)
    • NH: Last month, news coverage of the 2020 Census led with headlines that said America’s white population is shrinking for the first time in history.
    • Is this true? A better question might be: In what sense is this true? The decline may be real or not depending on how you define “white.”
    • First, let’s back up and offer some context. The Census Bureau does not usually focus, in detail, on race. They typically use the basic categories you find in news reports: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian. In this case, they treat Hispanic like a race, not an ethnicity. If, like most Hispanics, you regard yourself as both Hispanic and white, you simply have to choose one or the other.
    • But with the decennial census, it’s different. The Census examines race much more closely, and it also tries to differentiate race from ethnicity. People can choose one or more race boxes (white, black, American Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander, or “some other race”). Later, people can specify if they are of Hispanic origin. Thus, the resulting categorizations are much more granular.
    • So, to recap: In non-decennial census reports--and in most surveys and news reports--“whites” refers only to non-Hispanic whites. But on the decennial census, “whites” can refer to non-Hispanic whites, whites of Hispanic origin, and multiracial Americans who are partially white (referred to as white “in combination”).
    • Now for the news. In the 2020 census, the white share of the U.S. population fell no matter how you define white--inclusively (partially white and white alone), or exclusively (white alone).
    • This news alone was hardly surprising. Whites, however defined, have been gradually declining as a share of the population for decades, mainly because the immigration rate for non-whites has been larger (relative to their numbers in the US) than for whites. What’s interesting, however, is that from 2010 to 2020 the inclusive definition only fell by about 4 percentage points. But the exclusive definition fell by nearly 11 percentage points.

Trendspotting: The White Population is Shrinking. Or Is It? - Sept27 3

    • This leads us to the news that did generate lots of attention--which was that the exclusively white population also declined in absolute numbers. It fell by -8.6%, or by 19.2 million people. Of that 19.2 million decline, about 5.1 million were non-Hispanic whites, and 14.1 million were Hispanic whites.

Trendspotting: The White Population is Shrinking. Or Is It? - Sept27 2

    • The other big news was that there was a huge increase in the multiracial population--especially among Hispanics. In 2020, the number of Hispanic whites also identifying as “some other race” surged, which pushed down the exclusively white share of the population. The number of Hispanics checking two or more race boxes jumped by 567% since 2010.

Trendspotting: The White Population is Shrinking. Or Is It? - Sept27 1

    • Why did this happen? The truth is, we don’t exactly know. The large drop was probably driven by a mix of (1) actual demographic realities (i.e. the nation is growing more diverse), (2) shifts in how Americans identify themselves, and (3) changes in how the Census Bureau categorizes and asks about race.
    • One big change has been in how the Census Bureau categorizes race. For most of its history, the decennial census asked people to check off one and only one race box. Since 2000, respondents have been able to check off multiple races, but those who do are then counted under a separate category called “two or more races.” This shift has tended to shrink the exclusively white population, because most people who identify as multiracial identify partly as white.
    • In 2020, the census form changed yet again. For the first time, as the author John Judis explains in a WSJ op-ed, the 2020 census asked respondents who checked “white” to specify their nationality. German, Irish, and Italian were among the examples. No Spanish-speaking nationality was listed, which Judis argues may have created the impression that Hispanic was another race. Many Hispanics who would have checked off white alone in 2010 may have checked “white” and “some other race” in 2020.
    • To see how much this change may have altered the Hispanic response, consider that in 2010 over 53% of Hispanics reported being "white only." Another 6% said "two or more races." And another 37% said "some other race" (meaning something other than five standard races listed). According to an analysis by Pew and others, "white only" actually gained a net 3.5 percentage points since 2000 due to Hispanics who switched to that option after identifying themselves as something else in 2000. Yet from 2010 to 2020, the white-only share abruptly plummeted by nearly 35 percentage points. The prior positive shift among ongoing respondents makes the large 2020 decline all the more mysterious, especially since the net Hispanic immigrant flow during the 2010s has been relatively modest.
    • So what is happening to the white population? Quite simply, it depends on how you define “white.” If you include people who are partially white, the population still increasing. If you define it only as people who are exclusively white, it’s falling. But even this decline has been questioned because the Census Bureau has recently changed the way it asks about race. It’s not clear even whether the exclusive decline is real.
    • One might ask: Why, then, did the media present the census data this way? Stating that the white population fell was just one possible storyline. IMO, it’s because the media wants to have a winner, where one group’s gain is another’s loss. Although this might make for a more dramatic story, the Census--not to mention Americans themselves--is moving away from the kind of either-or label that makes such a narrative possible.
    • Misleading or not, the “white population shrinks” headlines inspired plenty of commentary about America’s future as a minority-majority nation. It was often coupled with the political prediction that a more diverse population would favor Democrats.
    • But are the political predictions right? That’s hard to say as well, because most of what people say about voting preferences corresponds with the non-decennial census definitions of race. We don’t know exactly how the 2020 census categories map onto voting behavior.
    • In any case, progressive Democrats who once might have welcomed the news of declining white population are now beginning to react with caution. Some are even warning other Democrats to avoid talking about it at all, for fear it might embolden far-right extremists pushing “replacement theory.”
    • According to a recent Pew poll, most U.S. adults (61%) consider non-Hispanic whites declining as a share of the population neither good nor bad for society. But among those who have an opinion, more people say that it’s bad—especially Americans without a college degree. This poses a challenge to Democrats both strategically and practically, since they need these voters to win.
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