Skip to main content
Parochial students from Notre Dame H.S. in the Manhattan, and Cardinal Hayes H. S. and All Hallows H. S. both from the Bronx watch and take photos as Pope Francis arrives at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York for evening prayer, September 24, 2015. Pope Francis is on a five-day trip to the USA, which includes stops in Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia, after a three-day stay in Cuba.  REUTERS/Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media/POOL - RTX1SCGK
The Avenue

Race, American Identity and the Census

William H. Frey

In the May 14 Sunday Review section of The New York Times, Herbert Gans proposed a most unlikely source for driving America’s rising right-wing hysteria—the U.S. Census Bureau. Mr. Gans accused the Bureau of downplaying the nation’s “whiteness” in its statistics, thereby promoting fear among white people of being overwhelmed by “others.” This, he argued, increased white racism in the Republican Party and probably helped to elect Donald Trump as president.

There are a number of problems with this argument, which I discuss below. But, the most dangerous consequence of this assertion is that it could be used by the current administration to dismiss the Bureau’s carefully prepared statistical data as “fake” and remake the way race gets reported to suit its political purposes.

The collection of racial statistics is one of the most important functions that the Census Bureau and other federal agencies conduct. They are used to implement civil rights legislation and provide information that benefit groups of different origins and histories. Guidelines for racial reporting are exhaustively vetted by inter-agency and advisory committees that represent all race and ethnic stakeholders.

A major innovation occurred with the 2000 Census, which for the first time, allowed persons to identify themselves with one or more racial groups. This was in response to groups that did not want to associate themselves with a single race, and also to recognize the rising numbers of interracial marriages.

According to those rules, individuals could choose to identify themselves as, say, “white and black” or “white and Asian,” in contrast to a single race. Mr. Gans criticizes the Census Bureau for not counting each of the former groups as part of a broader white category. But the point of these new categories is to allow people who identify as “mixed race” to distinguish themselves as just that.

How many mixed race white people are there in the Census? The answer is complicated by how Hispanics have been enumerated. In both the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, Hispanics identified themselves on a “Hispanic status” question separately from the question on race. Although Hispanics were also asked to fill out the race question, Census research suggests that this approach is flawed because most respondents identified primarily as Hispanic in the separate status question, making their “race” response less accurate.

Thus, it is common practice to classify Hispanics as one category and to classify all non-Hispanics according to the race categories with which they identify. Using this approach, the 2010 Census showed the nation to be 63.7 percent white, 16.3 percent Hispanic, 12.2 percent black, 4.7 percent Asian, and 1.9 percent multiracial. Even if one-seventh of Hispanics identified as white-Hispanic multiracial (an estimate from recent Census research), the entire population of white multiracials would comprise less than five percent of the 2010 population.

Will adding those who identify as white multiracial to the white population make the big difference that, as Mr. Gans suggests, would allow whites to feel less threatened? Not likely. Nor will similar changes to population projections. Here, it is important to keep in mind that diversity is growing from the “bottom up” of the nation’s age distribution—meaning that the younger age groups are becoming more racially diverse as the white population ages.

In 2010, the population under the age of 18 was 54 percent white. This statistic is projected to be 50 percent white in 2020 and 47 percent white in 2030. Of course, the older population will remain whiter as the baby boom generation continues to age. However, it is the younger, more diverse generations which will be ushering in change in the nation’s labor force, consumer markets, and electorate.

What about the children of interracial marriages? Will they, as Mr. Gans predicts, identify as white? Certainly not as much as in the past. It is true that in perceiving advantages to identifying as white, many of today’s interracially married parents fill out “white’ on the Census for the race of their mixed race children. But how will these children identify themselves as they grow up in increasingly diverse generations, and with fewer white marriage partners?

Mr. Gans is correct that there is a great deal of angst on the part of older whites as the younger generation identifies more heavily with groups that have long been categorized as racial minorities. This cultural generation gap was evident in a 2015 PRRI survey which shows that older working class white people think that, compared with the 1950s, America’s culture and way of life have changed for the worse and that immigrants today are a burden. Younger whites and racial minorities believe the opposite.

Yet this fear among older white people is not caused by the U.S. Census Bureau. If anything, the Bureau’s numbers—both current and projected—will be necessary to educate the older generation about the likely change in a country which, until recently, was not afraid to reach out to new minorities. Rather than squelch this information, leadership from the president on down needs to educate older white Americans about how investments in youthful minorities and their families—their education, job training, medical care, and housing—are necessary for the nation’s future prosperity.

The older generation is not the only audience for these evolving Census statistics. Younger people, including millennials, need to understand that they are on the forefront of change in a racially diverse, outward-looking nation. Already energized, this will give younger generations further reason to become politically active and, where possible, cooperate as a bridge between the white-dominated America of the past and the multi-hued country that we are becoming.

The Census Bureau’s statistics do not need to be altered. They are playing an important role in this transition by telling us that, especially in the 21st century, you don’t have to identify as white to be an American.

Read William H. Frey’s letter to the editor in the New York Times on May 22, 2017.

Get daily updates from Brookings