The 2020 Census reveals more than shifting populations. It reveals evolving American racial identity. Census data shows more Americans identify as multiracial and fewer as white. Twenty percent of younger respondents declined to identify their race.
Census officials predict “white” Americans will become a minority population as early as 2045. It could be a reality sooner. In the 2020 Census, nearly four in 10 respondents identified with a race or ethnic group other than white.
Hispanics were a significant source of evolving American identity. One third of Hispanic Census respondents self-identified as multiracial compared to just 6 percent in the 2010 Census. But they weren’t alone. Respondents who identified themselves as both non-Hispanic and multiracial jumped from 6 million in 2010 to 13.5 million in 2020.
As recently as 1980, self-identifying white residents made up 80 percent of the US population. By 2000, whites represented 69 percent of the total population. In 2019, whites only represented 60 percent of the total population. Since 2010, the percentage of white population fell in all 50 states, in 358 of the nation’s 364 metropolitan areas and in 3.012 of the nation’s 3,141 counties.
The percentage decline of white population isn’t just a function of immigration. Between 2016 and 2019, the white population declined by 500,000, which is tied to death rates exceeding birth rates among whites. There are more interracial marriages that produce children who are identified or self-identify as multiracial.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions about what a more racially diverse America might mean in terms of geographical preferences, economic aspirations and political affiliations. Those assumptions are likely to be wrong.
During the first nine years of the last decade, racial and ethnic minorities accounted for all the nation’s population growth, according to Census data. Minorities, especially Hispanics, buoyed populations in metropolitan areas and counties that otherwise would have shrunk because of the loss of white youth. And, Donald Trump attracted more Latino voters in 2020 than he did in 2016.
Writing in The Atlantic, staff writer Adam Server raises intriguing questions about why race shouldn’t be an identifying American characteristic. He cites scientific studies that conclude racial categories are “weak proxies for genetic diversity”. Server calls race a “biological fiction”.
“It’s a concept that is too crude to provide useful information. It’s a concept that has social meaning that interferes in the scientific understanding of human genetic diversity. And it’s a concept that we are not the first to call upon moving away from,” Michael Yudell, professor of public health at Drexel University in Philadelphia, told Scientific American.
Over time, the lines have blurred over who was considered white or black. Server notes Syrians were considered “white persons” by US courts in 1909, 1910 and 1915, but not in 1913 or 1914. Immigrants from east of the Bosporus Strait were deemed “white” even though their place of origin lies in Asia.
American nativism, Server says, has been leveled against Southern and Eastern Europeans, Jews and Arabs. Blacks have been enslaved, Indians persecuted, Japanese interned and Chinese banned. His point: Race is a defined term often used to discriminate. As a consequence, discrimination, not skin color, determines attitudes, aptitudes or political inclinations. Attitudes and political inclinations can shift as a “race” moves from the margins to the center of society.
“Neither the fiction of race nor the political identities that emerge from it are necessarily permanent,” Server says. “The party of white supremacy can become the party of civil rights. Yesterday’s ‘beaten men from beaten races’ can help rescue the world from fascism, just as New Deal stalwarts can someday become Reagan Democrats. The pro-immigrant communities of yesteryear can become the nativists of the future. The radicals of the past can grow into the middle- and upper-class establishment. Those once seen as bearing the ‘hallmark of oriental despotisms’ may become tomorrow’s ‘model minorities’”.
That’s why Server discourages reading too much into racial identities in the Census.
“The Census may herald a more inclusive and harmonious future, or it may simply foreshadow yet another moment in American history when some borders shift while others remain closely guarded,” Server suggests. “But what the Census cannot tell you is where lines of partisan identity will be drawn. It can tell you how Americans define themselves, but not how their politics flow from that definition. The Census cannot tell Americans who they will become; that we must decide ourselves.”
Fox TV’s Tucker Carlson may be in a political panic about ‘white’ decline, but Server says the rest of us don’t need to lather up.
What the Census cannot tell you is where lines of partisan identity will be drawn. It can tell you how Americans define themselves, but not how their politics flow from that definition.
“Carlson, it’s worth noting, has it wrong – voters who are not white are no less persuadable than those who are,” he says. “If Republicans want to win over those constituencies, nothing is stopping them beyond their own nativism. And any read of Census results that assumes the growing diversity of the United States will simply redound to one party’s benefit is likely mistaken.”
A diverse population is an asset, not a problem. The ideal of America continues to draw people from all over the world, who help to fill shortages in healthcare, homecare, hospitality and construction sectors. How they self-identify racially or ethnically doesn’t really matter. A Pew Research survey published last month said 61 percent of Americans say shifting US racial identity is neither good nor bad for society.