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What The New Census Results Tell Us About Diversity In The U.S.


New census results out this week show the United States is becoming more diverse and multiracial. Headlines say the country's white population is in decline. But as NPR's census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang has discovered, he's dug through the numbers and has a more complicated story to tell us. Hansi, thanks so much for being with us.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And what exactly do these new census numbers tell us?

WANG: It depends on how we're defining white. If we're talking about people who checked off only the white box on the census form, the size of this group and its share of the total population have dropped over the past decade. But if you expand the white population to also include people who checked off white and one or more of the other racial categories, then the white population has grown since 2010. And the bottom line is that white people still make up the largest racial or ethnic group in the United States.

SIMON: Explain to us what's going on in some of the changes within that group.

WANG: Fewer births and more deaths could be factors here. But another factor could be how the bureau changed how it categorized the responses people wrote in about their identities on census forms. This change may have increased the number of people recorded in this new census data as identifying with more than one race. And the bureau has warned that because of that change, researchers should be cautious about comparing race data from the 2020 census with earlier counts. So any historical comparisons to race data from the first U.S. Census in 1790 and onward really should be considered with a grain of salt.

SIMON: Is there an official definition of what it means to be white for the census?

WANG: Well, the Census Bureau has to follow a definition set by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. And it says anyone with, quote, "origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa," unquote, should be categorized as white in government data about race. But we have to remember that census data is produced through how people report their racial identities themselves. And they may have different concepts of who is white. Now, I talked to Richard Alba. He's a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And Alba says we should approach this data with a broad definition of whiteness, especially with more and more children born to one parent who identifies as white and another who does not.

RICHARD ALBA: Sometimes they think of themselves as mixed. Sometimes they think of themselves as members of a single group, and often that group is white. So I don't see how we can claim that white is a single thing at this point.

WANG: But, you know, Scott, this week, there's been a lot of focus on a very narrow definition of white people - those who only checked off the white box and said they do not identify as Hispanic or Latino. And Alba says focusing so much on this narrowly defined group could be dangerous.

SIMON: Dangerous - how so?

WANG: Well, some people tracking far-right, white racial extremism have been worried about news headlines about a so-called declining white population fueling propaganda. I talked to psychologist Jennifer Richeson at Yale University. She's done research on how white people in general react when they hear about changes in the racial demographics of the U.S.

JENNIFER RICHESON: On average, when they read about a declining white population, they tend to get concerned about what we call sort of the status of their group. You know, will they continue to have political representation? They tend to really feel a sense of anxiety that their fortunes might be in jeopardy.

WANG: Richeson says a lot of this anxiety can be traced back to 2008, when the Census Bureau projected that by 2042, white people would make up a minority of the U.S. population. And there's been a lot of criticism of that announcement. It's based on assumptions that may turn out to be untrue. So, you know, before the Census Bureau released the new census numbers this week, it's announced it's moving away from these concepts of majority and minority, and they're researching new ways of understanding the country's diversity.

SIMON: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, thanks for all your great and original work.

WANG: You're very welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.