The Census Bureau has begun to share information from the 2020 Census. Some of the headlines we’re seeing on this new data include the fact that the population of the U.S. hasn’t grown as slowly as it did over the past decade since the 1930s. Texas grew and California’s population shrank. But one of the most frequently reported changes is sometimes being reported as a decline in the white population in the United States.
That’s not quite accurate. Here’s a more correct statement: the percentage of people who describe their race as “white” is now just about 58% of Americans.
For the first time, three states (Hawaii, California, and New Mexico), plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., do not have a majority of their populations describing themselves as white.
In some cases, this probably reflects a change in the ethnic makeup of the people of the state. For example, 39% of Californians said they were white in 2010. In 2020, 35% did so. With Latinos increasing to 23% of the people in the United States, and Asian Americans increasing faster than any other group, that probably means that fewer of the people living in California are white.
Puerto Rico on the 2020 census
In Puerto Rico, however, nearly 80% of residents described themselves as white in 2010. Just over 17% did so in 2021. This is probably not an enormous change in the ethnic makeup of the Island. It’s probably a big change in how people describe themselves.
Why would that happen? One reason is that the Census gave more options. Across the nation, three times as many people described themselves as belonging to more than one race. With an increase in multiracial marriages, there probably are more multiracial people in the United States. But having the choice to give more information on the census form is probably part of the reason, too.
Another important reason: activists from organizations like Colectivo Ilé worked hard to persuade people in Puerto Rico to describe themselves in different ways. They had a goal to bring the number of people saying they were only white down below 70%, in hopes of providing a more accurate image of the Island and a more politically useful one.
Did this decision, taken by millions of people, affect the results of the 2020 Census?
Respected news outlets missed it
We say yes. 1.6 million people deciding to describe themselves as white and another race would affect the data.
But NPR didn’t even mention Puerto Rico in their extensive article examining the question. Some mainstream news articles did bring up Puerto Rico in their examples, but many did not. One major news outlet mentioned DNA tests from companies like Ancestry.com as a reason more people described themselves as multiracial. Several others opined that it’s cool to be multi-ethnic. Seeing one population with strikingly different numbers should have made it into the news.
But Puerto Rico doesn’t always make it into the news, even when it seems obvious that Puerto Rico is relevant and important to a story.
Could it be that the reason for this is the same reason that Puerto Rico is often not mentioned in social studies text books in the states? The same reason that some people still don’t even know that Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States?
Puerto Rico is not a state
We keep hearing that changes in funding for this program or that will make Puerto Rico more like a state. That we will be treated in this program or that just as states are treated. That being a state will not really be very different from being a territory.
But being a territory is not the same as being a state. Often, it means being overlooked. Overlooked in news stories, but also sometimes overlooked in federal funding, in updates to laws, and in other ways that have more practical effects on day to day life. Statehood is the only path to equality for Puerto Rico.