The number of Americans who identified as more than one race nearly doubled to 13.5 million people between 2010 and 2020, and did double or more in 34 states and the District of Columbia, a Stateline analysis of census figures shows.
To some observers, the increase in the number of Americans identifying as more than one race shows that barriers are breaking down. But the increase also may reflect changes to census questions designed to tease out the heritage of multiracial people.
The increases contributed to a first-ever decline in the population identifying solely as non-Hispanic white. The number of people identifying as white who also identified as Hispanic or another race did grow, however.
“It’s not unreasonable to imagine that if people keep intermarrying, if they define themselves as white and they are accepted as white, the definition of white in 2052 could be much different than it is in 2022,” said Ellis Monk, an associate sociology professor at Harvard University who has studied the way official racial categories can be misleading.
But Monk emphasized that he and other people with dark skin or other distinctive racial features continue to face discrimination and reduced opportunities, even if they identify as more than one race. Monk is Black, and like most African Americans he has white forebears, but he doesn’t consider himself to be biracial.
“It’s not what your ancestry is, it’s what you look like. That’s how discrimination happens,” said Nancy López, director of the Institute for the Study of “Race” and Social Justice at the University of New Mexico. López said her group puts the word “race” in quotes to emphasize that race is a shifting concept based more on social norms than biology.
Richard Alba, a sociologist at the City University of New York who authored a 2020 book on the limitations of “minority” status in official statistics, said, “Black-white individuals are more likely to face racism than are Asian-whites or Hispanic-whites.”
Official statistics don’t capture the full range of multiracial and ethnic backgrounds, as seen in other data such as birth records that show many people with both Hispanic and non-Hispanic parentage that the census doesn’t capture, Alba argues in a March study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The binary vision of whites versus people of color is a distortion of American social realities,” Alba said. “Despite the decline of the white [alone] fraction of the population, 90% of all racial mixes include white ancestry,” he added, echoing an argument in his study that people who identify as white plus another race are a “bridging group” that make assimilation more likely.
California had the largest numeric increase in people identifying as more than one race, growing 61% from 2010 to slightly over 2 million. People who identified as both white and Asian made up the largest group in both years. Residents identifying as white and American Indian grew by 84% to 384,600.
Even in Wyoming, the state with the smallest numeric increase, the number of people identifying as more than one race more than doubled to about 21,300. That was driven by an increase in the population identifying as both white and American Indian, which grew by 157% between 2010 and 2020, to about 11,500.
Hawaii, where the percentage of people identifying as more than one race is the highest in the nation at 24%, saw the lowest percentage increase, about 10%. It’s the only state where three races — white, Asian and Native Hawaiian — is the most common multiracial identification. That category grew 16% to about 99,200. The number of people identifying as both Asian and Native Hawaiian grew by 4% during the decade to 75,300.
The largest percentage increase in multiracial residents was in Arkansas, up 180% to about 135,400 people. The largest number identified as white and American Indian. That category grew 261% to about 76,000, while people identifying themselves as both white and Black grew 114% to about 28,900.
Nationwide, the number of people identifying as solely non-Hispanic white declined by 5 million between 2010 and 2020, to nearly 192 million. But all people who identified as white and also Hispanic or some other race grew by 2%, or about 4 million, to 235 million, according to a Pew Research Center report. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the research center and Stateline.)
Most Americans say the declining share of non-Hispanic white people is neither good nor bad for society, according to a survey last August by the research center. But Alba’s book noted research that shows white people tend to show more hostility to minority groups and adopt more conservative positions after hearing white Americans are headed for minority status, though not all studies reached the same conclusion.
The most common multiracial group nationwide was white and American Indian or Alaska Native, which is also the most common multiracial group in 32 states, up from 15 in 2010.
In 2010, white and Black was the most common multiracial group nationally and in 29 states. The number of multiracial Americans identifying as white and Black grew by two-thirds to about 3 million, but the number of those identifying as white and American Indian grew faster, by 177% to nearly 4 million.
The increase in people who identify as white and American Indian was partly a result of better questions on census forms that provided more examples of tribes, but also more public curiosity and receptiveness to learning about mixed roots, Indigenous leaders say.
“The question is whether, in a few generations, race will become less significant in this society, as ethnicity did after World War II, or if this is a nation where race will continue to be an important issue,” said Reynolds Farley, an emeritus sociology professor at the University of Michigan.
For some people, identifying themselves as more than one race matters little if Americans tend to put people in either the “Black” or “white” categories. Former President Barack Obama, who has a white mother though he identifies as Black, has described being mistaken for a waiter or parking valet before he was famous.
“I am a white woman who married a Black man and had a Black baby,” said Amanda Lewis, a sociologist who runs the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“That’s the way others see her. That’s the way we think of her,” Lewis said of her daughter. “The opposite doesn’t happen. Instead of trying to make white people more comfortable, we need to embrace the multiracial democracy we’ve become.”
In his book, Alba questions the idea of a “majority-minority” United States by 2045, as predicted by the U.S. Census Bureau. At that point, according to census officials, the non-Hispanic white population will fall below 50%.
That idea creates a misleading impression of a “stark and deep-seated cleavage between the currently dominant white majority and non-white minorities,” Alba writes, arguing that other races could be “absorbed into mainstream society” like earlier generations of European immigrants were.
Lewis and López argued for different statistics that would include both self-identified racial categories and a “street race” that reflects the way people are perceived by the outside world.
“Asking simply how people identify is not enough,” López said. “We need to measure how others see you, or we miss an opportunity to make inequity visible and rectify that inequity.”
William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said more needs to be done to measure multiracial backgrounds, including better census questions that measure intermarriage between Hispanic and non-Hispanic people.
“I do like the idea of characterizing mixed-race individuals as just that, rather than in the process of assimilating,” Frey said. “This rise in the mixed population will continue and reflects an increasingly diverse 21st century America.”
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