A few years ago, there was a bit of a controversy after a handful of people were discovered to have changed their racial identity from white to black. The new census suggests that changes in identity are actually quite common:

Notice that the number of Hispanics that identify as two or more races rose from 3 million in 2010 to 20 million in 2020.  That sort of increase is much too big to be explained solely by demographic shifts, and instead implies that millions of Hispanics who identified as white in 2010 identified as mixed race in 2020.  But why?

Noah Smith has an interesting post on this issue:

When people say “race is a social construct”, this is one of the things they mean — the whole racial identify of tens of millions of people can change in just a few short years.

What’s going on? One obvious possibility is that the Trump Era made Hispanic people feel more like a racial minority. The Right’s targeting of immigrants, Trump’s well-publicized disparaging remarks about Mexicans, and violence like the 2019 El Paso shooting might have sent a message that Hispanics are not in the White club, and Census respondents might simply be acknowledging that.

Another possibility is that Hispanics don’t feel rejected by whiteness, but are choosing to reject it:

That’s probably a part of the story, but the change is so large I suspect additional factors as well.  One possibility is that the census changed the way it surveyed people.

At first glance, the 2010 and 2020 census forms look pretty similar, offering Americans the choice between the same set of language and race categories.  But there is one minor change that might be significant.  This is from the 2010 form:

With the 2020 form, the American Indian category had some additional explanation:

I’m not sure how the average Hispanic would interpret these two questions, but I suspect that many people view the term “American Indian” as something closer to “United States Indian.”  That’s how I’ve always thought of the term.  Indeed ‘America’ and ‘United States’ are often used synonymously.  In the 2020 form, however, the census includes examples such as “Mayan” and “Aztec”, which makes it pretty clear that the census intended “American Indian” to mean “Western hemisphere Indian”.

Most of the Hispanics who immigrate from Mexico and Central America to the US have both white and Native American ancestors.  (In Mexico, they use the term “Mestizo.”)  Thus it’s not surprising that when the question was clarified, many more Hispanics chose more than one race on question 9.

As is often the case, media reports of a declining white population were somewhat misleading.  The US white population is probably not shrinking, at least in the sense that most people think of the term ‘shrinking’.  There are not fewer white people, maybe not even fewer people who identify as white, merely fewer people who check only the white box on their census form.

I suspect these distinctions will become increasingly meaningless over time.  If someone were to ask me whether my daughter was white I wouldn’t even know how to answer the question.  What does it mean to say someone is white?  The race of their parents?  How they identify?  How they are seen by the public?

The census also suggests that 26 million Hispanics identify as a race other than Asian, white, black, Native American, Hawaiian or Alaskan Native, and yet claim not to be a mixture of several races.  I wonder what that “other race” actually is?