Examining the numbers behind new census option to share multiracial heritage

By: - September 28, 2021 12:35 am

Stock photo from Getty Images.

There is no doubt that the number of racial and ethnic populations in cities and counties and states across the country is a factor in many government grants and programs and long-term planning. It has been for a very long time.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report that said “EPA’s analysis indicates that racial and ethnic minority communities are particularly vulnerable to the greatest impacts of climate change.” In February of this year, the Brennan Center for Justice highlighted problems for minority populations when redistricting congressional districts takes place.

Think tank Policy Matters Ohio puts on its website the many different ways racial disparities affect Midwestern states, including Ohio. The JAMA Network Open medical research publication found that “mortality rates have differed greatly for Black and white populations in 30 major U.S. cities over the past decade.”

Why bring this up? The base issue at play now is that the United States Census changed the way the race of Americans is counted in the 2020 census recently, and there is a lot of misinterpretation of what it means and how it was done. Along with that, there is an equal amount of uncertainty of how these new numbers will affect policy and planning as it could relate to racial disparity in many ways. 

What the census did was allow respondents to check that the usual box (as they had in the past) that designated what race you were – white, Hispanic, African-American, Asian, etc. But they added a second box below that first one that allowed individuals to indicate if one of their parents or grandparents were different than the original box that was checked. You could check being white on the top box, and then say you had an African-American grandparent ancestor on the second box, with the result being you multiracial.

But neither white or Black alone as you might have been counted as before.

So how should the results be interpreted? The first key is to not think any racial population is shrinking or growing in such great numbers based on the differences between the 2010 and 2020 census data gathering. For example, in 2010, there were about 223 million Americans who were counted as white, and that dropped to 204 million this year because of the parental or grandparent influence. Predictably, the number of “multiracial” went up considerably, from 9 million to 25 million as a result.

The significance of these numbers, and how the multiracial designation might impact racial disparity programs and policies, is how important it becomes how the local numbers get examined. 

Let’s take a look at state of Ohio multiracial population changes and the multiracial population changes in the 88 counites within the state. The census bureau now has a website that one can find out specific numbers down to the county population data. This data set is very important, as it shows some of the misinterpretations many are seeing.

First, the census data changes are difficult to interpret at times because the Hispanic or Latino population has always been counted separately (in terms of multiracial background). But the differences in African-American or Asian or Hispanic “alone” designations did not change much in Ohio between 2010 and 2020 (e.g., the Ohio African-Americans were 12.2% of the state’s population in 2010, and 12.5% in 2020).

What did change was those that designated themselves “white alone” and “multiracial.” What happened was the “white alone” population declined in 2020 because that population (along with everyone else) was given the opportunity to specify in more detail at to what their race/ethic heritage is.

The “white alone” population in Ohio went from 82.7% to 77% of the state’s population from 2010 to 2020. That is a loss of about 460,000 between the two censuses. Those who designated themselves as multiracial (two or more races in their background) went from 2.1% of the state population in 2010 to 5.8% of the population in 2020. The gain in multiracial designations is about 444,000 between those ten years. 

As one can easily see, the differences in census plus/minus numbers between “white alone” and “multiracial” between 2010 and 2020 are almost identical. What this means is that some of the population changed their designation given the choices.

The biggest changes in multiracial percentage increases were in suburban counties like Geauga, Medina, and Union counties which all saw their multiracial population go up by more than 300%. But those big percentage increases are based on relatively small, real population numbers.

For example, Geauga County, a suburban east of Cleveland, saw their multiracial population go up from 788 in 2010 to 3,618 in 2020, a rise from 0.8% of the population to 3.8%. The increase is listed by the U.S. Census at 359% increases (the biggest change among Ohio’s 88 counties) even though the percentage of the overall county population  plus/minuses are relatively small.

By contrast, bigger city changes are smaller in percentage increase changes but much bigger in real population numbers. Hamilton County, home of Cincinnati, saw its multiracial increase go up by 177%, which ranks 54th  among counties in the state. But it was a 30,000 more people who claimed to be multiracial. 

And that’s’ why this new way of counting can be so hard to pin down. Hamilton County has more about 10 times more “multiracial” persons than Geauga County between 2010 and 2020, but is ranked 53 spots lower. 

Hamilton County gained about 30,000 multiracial people, and lost 26,000 whites. Geauga County gained 2,800 multiracial and lost about 1,100 whites. Both counites had little change in overall population. 

The interpretations of how the population has changed — or not really much, in flat level growth states like Ohio — is difficult to get urban planners and political science professors to comment on. For example, how are you going to plan the diversity factors in school now? Should a grade school age child who has two white parents and one Hispanic grandparent be counted the same racially as another child with two African-American parents and an Asian grandparent?

“I think the worst way in which these data can get used, and have gotten used, is by white nationalists who parrot things like, ‘Our group is being wiped out. We are under threat,'” said Jennifer Richeson, a psychologist at Yale University who studies racial identity in a recent interview.

“There are a lot of complications involved with how we categorize race, including the white population,” she continued. “Why are many of us so interested in watching what’s happening with this specific group of non-Hispanic white Americans? It’s puzzling to me that we are so concerned about it.”



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Daniel McGraw
Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a book author and freelance journalist in Lakewood, OH. He has written for The Bulwark, POLITICO, Next City, Daily Beast, and many others. Follow him @danmcgraw1.