The United States experienced unprecedented multiracial population growth and a decline in the white population for the first time in the nation’s history, according to U.S. Census officials, who released data Thursday revealing the most sweeping picture of America’s racial and ethnic makeup in a decade.
Overall, the country’s population grew at its slowest rate since the Great Depression, increasing to 331,449,281.
“These changes reveal that the U.S. population is much more multiracial, and more racially and ethnically diverse, than what we measured in the past,” said Nicholas Jones, the director of race, ethnicity, research and outreach for the Census Bureau’s population division.
The white, non-Hispanic population, without another race, decreased by 8.6% since 2010, according to the new data from the 2020 census. The U.S. is now 57.8% white, 18.7% Hispanic, 12.4% Black and 6% Asian.
Some of those changes, Jones said, can be attributed to improvements to the survey. The white, non-Hispanic population is still the largest racial group in the U.S. Nevertheless, the release bolstered expert predictions that the United States is becoming a more diverse nation, with continued expansion of the Hispanic, Black and Asian American populations and growing numbers of multiracial residents – only a fraction in past surveys.
“The diversity that we’re seeing in this country is going to be much more pronounced,” said William Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
Race and ethnicity in America
In 2020, 33.8 million people reported being more than one race, more than a threefold increase from 2010, when 9 million people, or 2.9% of the population, identified that way. A fraction of residents reported being multiracial in 2000 (6.8 million, 2.4%), the first year respondents had the option.
At the national level, there was a 61.1% chance that two people chosen at random in a given area would be of different racial or ethnic groups. That same probability – called a diversity index by census officials – was 54.9 % in 2010.
The states with the highest diversity index scores in 2020 were in the west, with Hawaii at 76%, California with 69.7% and Nevada at 68.8%. The results released Thursday present more comprehensive data on race and ancestry than in earlier surveys.
The 2020 Census used two separate questions to calculate race and ethnicity. One question focused on Hispanic or Latino origin. The other question focused specifically on race.
The questionnaire included write-in boxes for Black or African American respondents for the first time, allowing them to list whether they are Haitian or Jamaican or Somali, for example. The surveys included similar boxes for white residents, allowing them to write in Lebanese or Egyptian or Italian.
“The improvements and changes enable a more thorough and accurate depiction of how people self-identify, yielding a more accurate portrait of how people report their Hispanic origin and race within the context of a two-question format,” said Jones.
While the white population remained the most prevalent race or ethnic group in most counties, the most prevalent groups in certain areas were non-white, continuing growth trends of past years.
Black or African American populations were dominant in parts of the South, while Hispanic or Latino residents were most prevalent in the Southwest and West. Native Americans were predominant in places where there are tribal lands in parts of Alaska, the Southwest, and Midwest.
“The presence of the Hispanic or Latino population as the second-most prevalent group spanned the entire continental United States, with large numbers of counties in every region,” census officials said in a release.
Yvette Roubideaux, vice president for research at the National Congress of American Indians, welcomed the results.
“Today’s news is great news,” she said. “America is more diverse than ever, and that diversity is a strength, not a weakness. We are excited to see that the data confirms that what we already see in our communities or schools, workplaces and with friends and families.” She and other advocates said they are now turning their focus to ensuring political representation fairly reflect the population shifts in the data.
Population growth continues to slow
The country’s overall population grew by only 7.4% between 2010 and 2020, among the most sluggish on record. The 1930s was the only other decade that had slower growth.
“Population decline was widespread this decade,” said Marc Perry, senior demographer at the Census Bureau, who noted the slowdown was “even more pronounced at the county level. Fifty-two percent of all counties had smaller counties in 2020 than in 2010,” he said.
Perry said smaller counties generally lost population while large ones gained. Growth was “almost entirely” in metro areas, he said, adding that all 10 of the country’s most populous cities grew.
What is the census?
The census is mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution. Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a count of the American population, including key demographic details such as race and gender. These data, in turn, are used to draw up congressional districts, as well as in a host of other ways.
Compared with the results from 2010 and earlier surveys, the data show Americans how the population has grown and changed and moved, as well as who our neighbors and communities are – in some sense what it means to be American today.
The results from the 2020 census, taken amid the pandemic and partisan sniping about the politicization of the process, are meant to be a snapshot of the population as of April 1, 2020. States use the census data to determine legislative and congressional districts – and the Electoral College votes that come with them.
The statistics gleaned from the decennial census reverberate through American life, and are used directly and indirectly to hand out hundreds of billions annually in federal funding and for everything from drawing school district boundaries to measuring the diversity of police forces and corporate boards.
“It’s sort of like the denominator for a whole lot of stuff,” said John Logan, a sociology professor at Brown University and population studies researcher. He likened it to a definitive “yard stick” Americans will use for years to come.
Credit: USA Today