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Why the 2030 census will likely show a drop in 'white' Americans

Federal forms will have an option for "Middle Eastern or North African" and "Hispanic or Latino" under race, eliminating a separate "ethnicity" question.

The Biden administration last week announced a major change in how Americans will be able to identify themselves on the 2030 census and other federal forms. With the update, there will be two new options available under the “race” category: “Middle Eastern or North African” (“MENA”) and “Hispanic or Latino.” It’s a change that’s a long time coming as millions of Americans have felt unrepresented in the previous choices.

It’s also a shift that is sure to prompt backlash among right-wing agitators, specifically white supremacists, as the changes are likely to result in a surface-level drop in the number of Americans who are counted as “white” in comparison to previous years. Even as the revision paints a more accurate picture of the country, it’s also the sort of thing conspiracy theorists and loyalists of former President Donald Trump tend to grasp onto as proof of a so-called plot against white America.

It’s also a shift that is sure to prompt backlash among right-wing agitators, specifically white supremacists.

The most visible effect will likely come from the Census Bureau, which is part of the Department of Commerce. Before last week, the Office of Management and Budget, whose standards the Census follows, recognized five categories for data on race: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White. It also recognized two categories for ethnicity: Hispanic or Latino and non-Hispanic or Latino. Since the 2000 census, participants have been allowed to select more than one option for race. Moving forward, Americans faced with this question will be encouraged to select as many options as possible for how they identify, according to a White House blog post.

The overwhelming majority of Americans are still selecting only one option for race, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent official estimates of the U.S. population. By that measure, 75.5% of Americans identify as white, a number that goes up to 77.8% when you look at those who select “white” alone or in combination with another option. But when you factor in the ethnicity question that’s now being phased out, that number drops: 58% of non-Hispanics identify as solely white and 61% of non-Hispanics identify as white alone or in combo of some other race.

These new changes are seen as a boon to the estimated 7 to 8 million Americans whose families came from places like Algeria or Lebanon that have felt stuck having to select “white” or “other” when faced with the choice, as NBC News reported earlier on Monday. It’s not a perfect solution, though, as there’s still an open question on how people like Afro-Arabs, who tick more than one box along with “MENA,” might be counted. And as NPR recently reported, “about half of participants in a recent study for OMB selected only the ‘Hispanic or Latino’ box when presented with a combined question after previously selecting both the Latino and Black categories,” prompting similar questions for Afro-Latinos.

These recommendations have been around for years, having first been proposed under the Obama administration but then buried during former President Donald Trump’s term. It’s a choice that made sense when you remember how politicized the census nearly became under Trump. Then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross intended to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, and lied about the reasons for doing so, prompting the Supreme Court to shoot down the proposal. Trump’s OMB also tanked the proposed addition of MENA and Latino/Hispanic choices, as The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump recently noted.

The political motivation behind shoving those changes in a drawer are obvious if you’re thinking like a MAGA Republican.

The political motivation behind shoving those changes in a drawer are obvious if you’re thinking like a MAGA Republican. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that Republicans and conservatives are the most likely to view a declining share of white people in the U.S. as being bad for society. Conspiracies like the “Great Replacement” theory already suppose that liberals and/or Democrats are trying to dilute whiteness through mass immigration. And targeting Diversity Inclusiveness and Equity programs have become the latest way of claiming that white Americans are being discriminated against. Any data showing an apparent drop in the overall number of whites is almost certain to add fuel to the fire.

It feels like a particularly safe bet that this is going to be a major talking point for the far right when you consider the Census Bureau’s previously released projections on race and ethnicity in America. In the 2023 estimates, the number of Americans that identify as white at all were projected to fall by roughly 5% by 2060. But the percentage of non-Hispanic Americans who identify only as white was projected to fall below 50% by 2050. Further separating out MENA individuals as well may show an even more precipitous decline.

That’s not to say that the Biden administration is in the wrong here. In mandating a census in the Constitution, the founders knew that a clearer understanding of who lives here is vital to good governance and how laws are made. What I am saying is that the next few years need to be spent bracing for the deluge of misinformation and racist rhetoric that opportunists will be letting fly. This new demographic data won’t be changing America like Trump and his allies will claim — it will be showing what America already is, and what it always has been.