Debunking the Myth of the Declining White Population

Media claimed that Census data showed a sharp decline in America's white population, but the widely publicized figure reflects a misunderstanding of new data collection techniques.

November 17, 2021, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


U.S. Census Bureau

rblfmr / Shutterstock

When the Census Bureau released the results of its 2020 survey, many media outlets highlighted one figure: the supposed decrease in the white population by 8.6 percent. But according to an article by Morris Levy, Richard Alba, and Dowell Myers, that number 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.

The authors point out that the erroneous figure can be attributed to the larger percentage of people that were reclassified as non-white, rather than a dramatic change in demographics. "In short, the confusion over white decline occurred not because the population changed but because the nuances in many individuals’ plural identities became more visible in the 2020 census." This, they argue, "is a positive development."

The authors go on to make several suggestions for how the Census Bureau can prevent similar misunderstandings of the data, including making more ethnicity data available to the public and creating more refined mechanisms for reporting mixed backgrounds.

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