The United States grew significantly more diverse over the past decade, as the populations of people who identify as Hispanic and Asian surged, and the number of people who said they were more than one race more than doubled, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.
Overall population growth slowed substantially over the past decade, but the growth that did occur — an increase of about 23 million people — was made up entirely of people who identified as Hispanic, Asian, Black and more than one race, according to the data, the first racial and ethnic breakdown from the 2020 census.
The white population declined for the first time in history. People who identify themselves as white on the census form have been decreasing as a share of the country’s population since the 1960s, when the United States lifted strict ethnic quotas aimed at keeping the country Northern and Western European.
That drop, of 2.6%, was driven in part by the aging of the white population — the median age was 44 in 2019, compared with 30 for Hispanics — and a long-running decline in the birthrate. Some social scientists theorized that another potential reason for the decrease was that more Americans who previously identified as white on the census are now choosing more than one race.
The single biggest population increase was among people who identified as more than one race, a category that first appeared on census forms 20 years ago, and now is the fastest-growing racial and ethnic category.
People who identify as white make up 58% of the population, down from 64% in 2010, and 69% in 2000.
“We are in a weird time demographically,” said Tomás Jiménez, a sociologist at Stanford University who writes about immigrants, assimilation and social mobility. “There’s more choice about our individual identities and how we present them than there has ever been. We can presume far less about who somebody is based on the boxes they check compared to previous periods.”
The data also showed that just under a majority of people under the age of 18 checked boxes other than white — multirace, Hispanic, Asian, or Black — a milestone that is the result of a substantially more diverse younger U.S. population. A decade ago, 65% of children were white. Overall, the number of Americans under the age of 18 declined, partly an effect of the drop in the birthrate, according to William Frey, chief demographer at the Brookings Institution.
Thursday’s numbers provide this census’s first picture of changes in the U.S. population below the level of states.
The five largest cities in the country are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix. Philadelphia is the sixth-largest city, bumped from fifth by Phoenix, which was the fastest growing of the Top 10 largest cities. Its population rose by 11.2%.
The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country over the decade.
The data, charting which parts of the country have seen growth and decline, has a practical use in politics. It is the basis for redistricting, a process in which state legislatures redraw voting lines based on changes in their states’ populations.
The data shows that Hispanics accounted for about half the country’s growth over the past decade, up by about 23%. The Asian population grew faster than expected — up by about 36%, a rise that made up nearly one-fifth of the country’s total growth. Nearly 1 in 4 Americans now identifies as Hispanic or Asian. The Black population grew 6%, an increase that represented about one-tenth of the country’s growth. Americans who identified as non-Hispanic and more than one race rose the fastest, jumping to 13.5 million from 6 million.
And in what appears to be a big shift in how Hispanics think of their racial identity, one-third of Hispanics reported being more than one race, up from just 6% in 2010. That means that Hispanics are now nearly twice as likely to identify as multiracial than as white.
Hispanic origin is counted as an ethnicity and is a distinct category from race. But Hispanics can also check race boxes.
Richard Alba, a sociologist who has studied demographics and the fluidity of racial categories, said the rise in multiracial Americans was a logical extension of the substantial mixing that has been happening for years in the United States.
Among Asians and Hispanics, more than one-quarter marry outside their race, according to the Pew Research Center. For U.S.-born Asians, the share is nearly double that.
The jump in the multirace category is due in part to the Census Bureau collecting more detailed data, Alba said, and analyzing answers more deeply. He said he believed that part of the decrease in the white population was people switching from the category of white to the category of more than one race.
“The census is doing a much better job at reflecting the growing complexity of the population,” he said. “They are really trying to acknowledge that the world is changing out there.”
The nation has been growing more diverse for decades, but recently the pace has accelerated. Non-Hispanic white people accounted for 46% of population growth in the 1970s, 36% in the 1980s, 20% in the 1990s, but just 8% of the growth in the first decade of this century and now zero in the 2010s.
Immigration is a force that has bolstered the U.S. population and boosted the economy, bringing a younger workforce that is helping support a growing older population.
Despite the dramatic slowdown in immigration at the end of the decade, the proportion of U.S. residents born in foreign countries is still at its highest point since the last big immigration wave around the turn of the 20th century.
Immigrants who have arrived in more recent years have largely been from countries in Asia and Latin America and have tended to settle in large cities, like New York and Los Angeles.
But over time, Hispanic and Asian immigrants and their children have fanned out broadly across the country, to smaller towns and rural areas.
That migration has helped support the numbers of people in rural places: Over the past decade, rural places lost both Black and white residents — their populations in those places each dropped by about 5% — but the numbers of people who identify as Hispanic and Asian continued to rise. In 2000, Hispanic and Asian residents made up just 6% of the rural population. Now it is nearly 10%.
But that increase was not enough to stem the tide out of rural places, which ultimately lost population over the decade, a change from the previous decade, when rural places made modest gains.
The biggest winners in population growth were suburbs and retirement communities in the South and the West. In counties considered to be retirement destinations, the population jumped by 17%.
Industrial cities in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions saw the biggest population losses, places such as Saginaw, Flint and Detroit in Michigan; Gary, Indiana; and Youngstown, Ohio.
The counties that have changed the most demographically over the past decade tended to be places that started out overwhelmingly white. Counties like Luzerne in Pennsylvania and Forsythe in Georgia are among the biggest gainers of diversity since 2010. Also high on the list are two counties in North Dakota, Cass and Ward, and Livingston Parish in Louisiana.
Now, about 98% of Americans live in a county with an increasing number of Latinos, and 95% live in a county where the Asian population is on the rise. Diversity is rising in 19 out of every 20 counties.
Still, growth slowed dramatically, even for Hispanics and Asians, driven in part by declining birthrates, as well as a drop in immigration. For example, the population of Asian people grew at just half the rate of the previous decade, when it rose by about 43%. Growth in the Hispanic population had an even steeper decline.
Growth in the Black population slowed too, but was still broad. All but nine states gained Black residents, and the Black share of the population went up in 32 states. While half the nation’s population growth occurred in the South, 70% of Black population growth occurred in those states. The vast majority of Black population growth was suburban. It increased by 6% overall but 12% in suburban neighborhoods.
And in a new twist likely to draw demographers’ attention, the Black population fell in Black-majority neighborhoods but rose in neighborhoods where Black people made up less than 10% of the population.
The white population may have declined nationally, but it grew in certain parts of the country. As in previous decades, the vast majority of white population growth occurred in neighborhoods that were mostly white to begin with — largely exurbs at the outer edges of metro areas.
Nearly three dozen states lost white population, and all but the District of Columbia, which is treated as a state for statistical purposes, saw the share of white residents drop.
Race may be socially constructed but the understanding of it has important political effects. One change that has been politically resonant has been the shrinking share of the white population, with the right seeing the shift as a threat and the left celebrating it as a kind of demographic destiny in which growing numbers of people of color will vote for Democrats.
Jiménez, whose county, Santa Clara, in California, became minority white more than 20 years ago, said these two views are most common among highly politicized Americans, and that most people don’t notice diversity.
“You go to places that have been majority-minority for a long time, and the diversity is banal — it’s not like everyone has bumper stickers saying celebrate diversity,” he said. “It’s not something they celebrate or panic over. It’s mostly just a fact of life.”