If you paid attention to the news this summer about the release of 2020 census data, you probably heard that America’s white population is in free fall. Big, if true.
The statistic that launched a thousand hot takes and breathless voice-overs about racial change was a supposed 8.6 percent, or 19 million, drop in the number of white Americans since 2010. Headlines cast this decline as unprecedented in census history and signaled that the nation’s majority-minority future loomed even closer than previously forecast. Pundits spun it as a harbinger of policy change and partisan realignment, for better or worse. Some wisely cautioned against demography-as-destiny assumptions in a country where the definition and public understanding of race can change rapidly. But few observers questioned whether the reported differences between the 2010 and 2020 censuses reflected real demographic change or simply statistical noise.
Commentators should have read the fine print before rushing to trot out their favorite narratives. If they had, they would have discovered that the eye-popping figure at the center of this summer’s hoopla is an illusion. The apparent decline in the white population is a result of changes to the Census Bureau’s protocol for measuring and classifying racial identity. The changes aimed to more accurately gauge the expansion of the country’s mixed-race population through new and more sophisticated data collection and classification techniques that capture the nuances of Americans’ multifaceted racial and ethnic identities. But a combination of bureaucratic constraints and messaging failures paved the way to public confusion.
Ironically, a segment by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson inadvertently exposed the myth of massive white decline. During a rant about what he perceived as left-wing giddiness over the “extinction of white people,” he asked, “Where did all these people go?” The millions of missing white Americans did not, in fact, go anywhere. And they are not being replaced by minorities. Growing numbers of white Americans have multiracial children and grandchildren. Others were recategorized in 2020 as multiracial themselves, instead of single-race white.
How, then, did so many pundits and commentators come to the conclusion that the white population had dropped 8.6 percent? This calculation stems from two errors. The first is a failure to recognize that the degree, and even direction, of change in white population depends entirely on how one defines white.
Many white people who self-identify as white also identify as members of another race or as Latino. Thus, white can mean four different things: (1) non-Latino single-race white people, (2) non-Latino including multiracial people, (3) all single-race white people including Latinos, or (4) all white people including Latinos and multiracial individuals.