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Diversifying population challenges government programs

One in 10 Americans claimed multiracial or multiethnic identity in census

Vice President Kamala Harris, who views herself as Black and Asian American, reflects a demographic shift in the country.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who views herself as Black and Asian American, reflects a demographic shift in the country. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The number of people identifying as more than one race tripled over the past decade, according to the 2020 census, a jump in the multiracial population the federal government may not be ready to handle.

People have been able to self-report racial identity and ethnicity — which encompass both race and Hispanic or Latino origins — on the once-every-decade head count since 1960. However, the census did not include a “more than one race” option until 2000.

About one in 10 respondents to the 2020 census indicated they were of more than one race or ethnicity — an increase from less than 3 percent in 2010.

That growth exposed the outdated way the federal government measures race and ethnicity, which mostly places people in a single box. From the Voting Rights Act to government measures preventing discrimination in private business, experts say the federal government doesn’t yet know what to do when a significant portion of the population doesn’t fit into just one box.

The increase also complicates the Biden administration’s nascent efforts to better measure the diversity of various government programs and address discrimination.

A recent report by the Office of Management and Budget found that many agencies did not collect demographic data about people enrolled or applying to their programs or, if they did, made no use of it. The report pointed out, for instance, that the Small Business Administration’s efforts to include more minority-owned businesses in federal contracting fell short.

“The shameful legacies of enslavement, segregation, systemic racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, class bias, nativism, bias against faith, and regional bias remain in our midst,” the July report said. “These harms are not just historical; some of these legacies remain in various Government policies and practices.”

The Biden administration has taken steps to update the federal government’s ability to track and, ideally, reach racial parity in federal programs. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed a series of executive orders to address discrimination and inequality through the Domestic Policy Council as well as agencies governed by OMB. One order mandated an evaluation of equity in federal programs, including demographic data on the people being served.

As part of the Biden administration’s push for more equity, the departments of Transportation, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development have asked for public input on ways to measure diversity in their programs.

Federal government and race

More immediately, experts said the increase in multiracial identification will complicate one key government process happening now: redistricting.

Under the Voting Rights Act, congressional and state legislative maps can include districts where identifiable minority communities have a greater opportunity to elect one of their own. The increase in people identifying as more than one race complicates the ability to identify that group, or argue over it in court, according to Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

As mapmakers and litigants look at voters, they’ll have to suss out whether multiracial individuals qualify in minority groups provided protection under the Voting Rights Act, Li said. That could mean the difference between a community getting a new minority opportunity district or not.

Courts have ruled that litigants have to identify, either through statistics or extensive on-the-ground testimony, a cohesive community with polarized voting, Li said.

Much of the increase in people identifying as more than one race was concentrated in already diverse areas — such as Florida, Texas, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. The intensely local analysis required under the Voting Rights Act could get complicated when as much as 20 percent of a community identifies as more than one race, he said.

“A lot of these methods and techniques were developed out of a Black-white framework, literally. It was dealing with Black people and white people, and some of them already don’t work well with Asians or Latinos. The country has changed a lot, and the way that we analyze and look at the country will probably have to change,” Li said.

Other measures of discrimination, such as HUD’s Assessment of Fair Housing, advises states and local governments to compare single ethnicity populations such as white to Black, or white to Asian, when determining segregation or concentrations of poverty.

That assessment, which HUD uses to determine whether a local government has discriminated against minority communities, is a condition of receiving federal housing funds.

Andrew Reamer, a George Washington University research professor, said federal agencies generally do not take race or ethnicity into account when doling out the more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending.

However, he said some federal agencies measure demographics for a variety of programs, such as housing segregation, discrimination in finance and hiring. Those programs measure demographics to monitor compliance with laws like the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and more.

Violations of fair housing provisions in the Civil Rights Act carry tens of thousands in civil penalties. Last year, the Fair Trade Commission reached a $1.5 million settlement with a New York auto dealer over accusations of violating the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

Some of these mechanics could change through regulation, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s pending rule change to small-business lending data collection. The proposed rule, published last month, would require all lenders to collect demographic data about the small businesses they lend to, including women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

Others could require more, such as an act of Congress to change the way the Voting Rights Act considers race and ethnicity.

Changing self-identification

The tripling of the population identifying as “more than one race” increased faster than the change in the population, meaning that people changed their answers to the census between 2010 and 2020.

The largest shift came within the Hispanic and Latino community, said Manuel Pastor, head of the University of Southern California’s Equity Research Institute. He noted that Hispanic respondents who marked themselves as white dropped from 53 percent in 2010 to 20 percent last year, and the “two or more races” category increased from 6 percent to more than 30 percent.

Pastor said that’s a sign of changing self-identification within Hispanic communities, mirroring a similar shift in the 1990s after the passage of a California law setting up a state-level immigration enforcement regime. That galvanized Hispanic communities across the state and country, Pastor said, leading them to self-identify as a distinct ethnicity.

This time around, the shift may be rooted in former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric targeting the Latino community and his failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

“It’s hard to know,” Pastor admitted. “It could be the question, but four years of Trump’s xenophobia and fanning the flames of racial division could have had an impact on identity.”

Pastor also pointed out that people of color disproportionately live in areas without reliable internet access. That means they may have answered the 2020 census through in-person field workers over the summer — after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and touched off nationwide protests — rather than fill out the form online in the spring.

Tanya Hernández, a Fordham University critical race theory law professor, attributed part of the multiracial population increase to a mismatch between the census race question’s purpose and respondents’ understanding of it. While many people use it to express their own view of their race or ethnicity, Hernández said the federal government uses it as a bureaucratic tool that has frequently not kept up with the country’s changing demographics.

While people’s understanding of their race and ethnicity has grown more nuanced, the discrimination they face has not. That means the federal government will have to puzzle out, whether through law or regulation, how to protect someone who identifies as Black and white, or Asian and white — and faces discrimination based on just one part of their heritage.

Hernández pointed to biracial comedian and director Jordan Peele, who has suffused his career with commentary on race.

“Jordan Peele’s experience of race in America is going to be very different from the hypothetical white-presenting individual with Native American ancestry,” she said. “Both are honest responses to the census question with that personal identity in mind. But for purposes of the federal government to do something with that data for redistricting, what are you to make of it?”

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