The Changing Face of the United States

When it comes to data, some demographic trends are more easily captured than others. The country’s shifting racial and ethnic makeup is perhaps towards the top of this list. The fact that the US is an increasingly multiracial country has been discussed in many forums, such as the Smithsonian, the New York Times, and other news outlets. Last October, National Geographic published an interesting article called “The Changing Face of America” in which the article’s author, Lise Funderburg, and photographer, Martin Schoeller, attempt to put a human face on the country’s increasingly multiracial nature. Funderburg is a lecturer at Rutgers-Camden’s MFA program, where PolicyMap’s own Bernie Langer is currently attending.

While there is no doubt that the multiracial population is growing quickly, this has proven a tough phenomenon to adequately capture with data. One reason for this is that individuals choose to self-identify in different ways. As Funderburg points out, for most multiracial Americans, “identity is a highly nuanced concept, influenced by politics, religion, history, and geography, as well as by how the person believes the answer will be used.” President Obama offers an example of the complexity of self-identification. Since he is the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, it’s notable that he selected the “Black, African Am., or Negro” option on the 2010 Census (as opposed to other options of checking “white” as well, “some other race” or writing in “multiracial”).

Beyond the complexities around how individuals choose to self-identify, the options for self-identification provided by the Census are limited as well. While the Census first began in 1790, it was not until 2000 that respondents were offered the option to identify with more than one race. In the 2010 Census, the question on race included 15 different response categories, as well as 3 places where respondents could write in something else.

From 2000 to 2010, the percent of the population identifying as of “two or more races” jumped by nearly 25%, and in some states such as the Carolinas, this number grew by over 80%. The percent change map below makes it easy to see that a large number of counties in the Carolinas experienced a growth in people identifying as being of more than one race, with some, such as Avery County, showing an increase of over 800%.

These trends are likely to be even greater than the data suggests, given that the Census Bureau acknowledges that it made a mistake and overestimated the “two or more race” population by one million people (approximately 15%) in the 2000 decennial Census. For more detailed information about the Bureau’s ongoing efforts to capture the country’s growing multiracial population, read this Census document.