For years, the idea of a “Great Replacement” — that white Americans and Europeans are purposefully being replaced through immigration — has obsessed many on the extreme Right. It’s a fringe belief, but concerns will doubtless have been exacerbated by a recent headline in the Washington Post: “Number of White people falls for first time”.
The article stated that the results of last year’s census marked “the first time the absolute number of people who identify as White alone has shrunk since a census started being taken in 1790”. Similar refrains rang out across numerous other news outlets: “America’s white population set to shrink”; “America’s White Population Shrank for the First Time”; “Vast Stretches of America Are Shrinking. Almost All of Them Voted for Trump”.
There was jubilation among the Left. Michael Moore called the announcement “the best day ever in US history”. For cultural radicals such as he, the census marked the end of “white supremacy” and the start of a millennium of progressive dominance and racial equity. Similarly, Neocon-turned-Never-Trumper Jennifer Rubin gushed that “this is fabulous news — now we need to prevent minority White rule”.
Meanwhile, on the Right, Tucker Carlson, while condemning the Left’s gloating, went on to claim, without evidence, that the opioid crisis in white communities explained the decline. Likewise, the news will only confirm views held by the far-Right, whereby white nationalists have warned that white decline is being orchestrated by globalist elites and minorities, and which will lead to dire consequences for white people and their children.
However, despite the charged rhetoric doing the rounds, the number of people American society considers to be white has almost certainly increased since 2010. White America is not shrinking, and whites are not being racially supplanted. It’s a false narrative with serious political repercussions: study after study has found that reminding white Americans about their impending minority status shifts their policy attitudes in a conservative direction and increases support for Right-wing populism. So while this announcement may make the cultural Left feel good, it largely benefits the Trumpist Right.
But what do the actual findings indicate? Isn’t the census reporting the facts as they stand, that the number of white people in the country is declining? Well, it’s certainly true 5.1 million fewer non-Hispanic Americans ticked their race as “white alone” in 2020 compared to 2010. But to take this number out of context is to paint a misleading picture of social reality.
Any quantitative social science student knows that when you change the wording of a survey question, you can alter — often substantially — the pattern of responses. The 2010 census questionnaire offered single tick boxes for “white” and “black”. The 2020 version was changed so that people were not only asked to tick a box but also prompted to write their ethnic group in a text box below. Research from Pew shows that around 15% of black and white respondents did not write anything in the text box, or they wrote something that doesn’t make sense. Hispanic Americans were also told, for the first time, that Hispanic is not a race1 when asked to define theirs. It is likely this prompted people to question their choice of which box to mark, opting for a multiple race or “other race” category instead. This would depress the number ticking the “white alone” box.
In addition to the change in census wording, the politicisation of white identity in the Trump era may also have led liberals to distance themselves from the category. The 2010s bore witness to a sharp rise in cultural progressivism. During this decade, the share of liberal Democratic white citizens, saying they felt “cold” towards white people increased by roughly 10%.
There’s also the fact that many WASP Americans, such as Elizabeth Warren, have some Native American ancestry and some, such as Brad Pitt, believe they do even when such claims cannot be substantiated. Similarly, since 8 in 10 black Americans have white or other racial backgrounds in their family history, and 1 in 10 white southerners has African ancestry, the scope for expansion in the mixed or other race categories is potentially enormous.
So did these changes affect what people wrote on the 2020 census? Much of this depends on three things: whether their answers reflect a) their own identity, b) how they think others see them, or c) some judgement about the preponderance of pan-ethnic origins in their background.
Figure 1 (below) shows that the number of Americans ticking “white alone” as their race dropped by 19.3 million between 2010 and 2020, while the number ticking “white” alongside some other category increased by 23.6 million. Much of this shifting took place within the Hispanic population, but even among non-Hispanics, “white alone” declined by 5.1 million.
At the same time, the census recorded a rise of 24.8 million in the “two or more races” group and a jump of 28.1 million in “some other race”. The increase of 3.6 million in the population of those with mixed “American Indian and Alaska Native” and other racial background is also noteworthy given that this group numbered just 2.3 million in the 2010 census. Hardly any of this shift can be explained by aboriginal birth or death rates.
Indeed, it's striking that most biracial white and Native Indian Americans are effectively considered white and view themselves as such. Meanwhile, the assimilation process means that with each generation, fewer descendants of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, especially those of mixed background, identify with their origins. It is, therefore, difficult to conceive that the number of Americans considered white is in decline.
Yet none of this means there is nothing happening with the nation’s ethnic demography. The balance between white births and deaths, taking into account the small flow of some 200,000 white immigrants a year, is nearly equal. The non-Hispanic white population, using the old question, was essentially flatlining between 2010 and 2019. White Americans have maintained a North European fertility pattern, with a total fertility rate between 1.5 and 2, since the Seventies.
Though relatively high for the developed world, this is still below the magic 2.1 replacement level. The “unmixed” white American population, along with white ethnic majorities in the rest of the developed world, will start to gradually decline in the decades ahead. But the big demographic story of the 2010s wasn’t about White Americans, but the big drop in Hispanic fertility, which is rapidly converging with the more stable white rate. So even while the share of “unmixed” whites will probably dip below 50% by 2050, the share who are considered socially white is likely to be a majority into the foreseeable future.
Either way, to be more informative, the US census needs an update. Social scientists and pundits are interested in people’s subjective racial identity, but we also want to know about the balance of “objective” racial categories. The latter shapes people’s decisions about where to live, who to marry, who to vote for and can affect their life chances. One option might be to ask people how others perceive their race. In Northern Ireland, people’s growing tendency to state their religion as “none” or “not stated” led census takers in 2011 to add a question asking about the religion people were brought up in.
Ultimately, though, until the results of such a question show a real decline in those considered to be "white", the zeal to foreground the Great Replacement tells us more about ideological hopes and fears than any emerging social reality. One of the few seeking to dispel such illusions is leading American sociologist of ethnicity, Richard Alba. However, his important book The Great Demographic Illusion failed to garner reviews because it doesn’t fit the prevailing narrative. Instead, the media are attracted to demographic stories which heighten white threat perceptions, gratifying progressives while increasing support for Trumpism.
So while the definition of white may be blurring at the edges, the white American majority isn’t going anywhere.