In a twist to notions of race identity, new 2010 census figures show an unexpected reason behind a renewed growth in the U.S. white population: More Hispanics listing themselves as white in the once-a-decade government count.
The shift is due to recent census changes that emphasize “Hispanic” as an ethnicity, not a race. While the U.S. government first made this distinction in 1980, many Latinos continued to use the “some other race” box to establish a Hispanic identity. In a switch, the 2010 census forms specifically instructed Latinos that Hispanic origins are not races and to select a recognized category such as white or black.
The result: a 6 percent increase in white Americans as tallied by the census, even though there was little change among non-Hispanic whites. In all, the number of people in the “white alone” category jumped by 12.1 million over the last decade to 223.6 million. Based on that definition, whites now represent 72 percent of the U.S. population and account for nearly half of the total population increase since 2000.
Broken down by state, California and Texas were home to nearly half of Hispanics who identified as white, followed by Florida and New York. Together, these four states comprised nearly two-thirds of the “white alone” population who were Hispanic. Overall, Hialeah, Fla.; Fargo, N.D.; Arvada, Colo.; Billings, Mont., and Scottsdale, Ariz., posted the highest shares in the “white alone” category, at roughly 90 percent or more.
“The white population has become more diverse as evidenced by the growth of the Hispanic white population and the multiple-race white population,” including black-white and white-Asian people, according to the 2010 census analysis released Thursday.
Some demographers say the broadened white category in 2010 could lead to a notable semantic if not cultural shift in defining race and ethnicity. Due to the impact of Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing group, the Census Bureau has previously estimated that whites will become the minority in the U.S. by midcentury. That is based on a definition of whites as non-Hispanic, who are now at 196.8 million.
That could change, if the common conception of white were to shift.
“What’s white in America in 1910, 2010 or even 2011 simply isn’t the same,” said Robert Lang, sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, citing the many different groups of European immigrants in the early 20th century who later became known collectively as white. He notes today that could mean a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in upstate New York or Jews and Italians in the lowest East side of Manhattan.
Predicting a similar shift for Hispanics, Lang and others noted that mixed marriages are now more common between whites and Hispanics. U.S.-born Latino children of immigrants also are more likely than their parents to identify as white. “The definition of white has always been expansive,” he said. “I could see the census in 2030 or 2040 dropping the differentiation between Hispanics and whites.”
Roderick Harrison, a Howard University sociologist and former chief of racial statistics at the Census Bureau, agreed that growing numbers of second- and third-generation Hispanics may lose some of their cultural identity as they become more assimilated in the U.S. “Some portion might indeed become, for most social purposes, ‘white,'” he said.
The latest census figures also show the number of Americans who identified themselves as partly black and partly white more than doubled to 1.8 million. For the first time, the black-white combination is the most prevalent group among multiracial Americans, making up 1 in 5 members of that subgroup. They exceed the number of multiracials who identified as being white and “some other race,” composed of mostly Hispanics, as well as white-Asians and white-American Indians.
States in the South including South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama tripled their numbers of people identifying as a mix of black and white, mostly because their overall numbers are smaller. In those places, less than 3 percent of blacks identified that way — lower than the national average of 4.5 percent.
In raw numbers, states that had the biggest increases in the black-white category were California, Florida, Texas, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Some blacks who are partly white have been reluctant to openly embrace their white background, due to a strong black identity in their communities. Historically, several states previously had a “one drop” rule that classified whites with any African blood as black.
In the 2010 census, President Barack Obama was among those who identified himself only as African-American, even though his mother was white.
“There is no question that racial lines are blurring in the United States, especially among ‘new’ minorities — Hispanics, Asians and growing mixed race generations. Yet it’s particularly significant that we are seeing breakdowns in white-black separation,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “Strong gains in interracial marriages and higher mixed-race identification among youth suggest that past racial categories will need to be radically changed or even dispensed with in the next two or three decades.”
The share of Hispanics identifying themselves as white increased over the past decade from 48 percent to 53 percent, while the proportion of those who marked “some other race” dropped from 42 percent to 37 percent. Many Hispanics previously preferred to check the “some other race” category to express their nationalities — such as Mexican or Cuban.
The Census Bureau has been examining different ways to count the nation’s demographic groups. One experiment is a possible change to the questionnaire that would effectively treat Hispanics as a mutually exclusive group. It would allow people to check off just one of five race or ethnic categories — white, black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaska Native — rather than asking people who identify themselves as Hispanic to also check what race they are.
— The multiple-race white population, including black-whites and white-Asians, increased by at least 8 percent in every state, with the biggest gains in the South.
— The non-Hispanic white population declined in 15 states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.
— The majority of blacks, both non-Hispanic blacks and those in combination with Hispanics or other races, lived in the South. About 60 percent of their total population lived in 10 states — New York, Florida, Texas, Georgia, California, North Carolina, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia and Ohio. The biggest gains in blacks over the past decade occurred in Florida, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina.
— Cities with the highest share of blacks, both non-Hispanic and in combination with others, include Detroit at 84 percent. It was followed by Jackson, Miss., Miami Gardens, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala.