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What The New Census Data Shows About Race Depends On How You Look At It

Over the past decade, the United States continued to grow more racially and ethnically diverse, according to the results of last year's national head count that the U.S. Census Bureau released this week.

There are many ways to slice the data and change how the demographic snapshot looks.

Since the 2000 count, participants have been able to check off more than one box when answering the race question on census forms. But breakdowns of the country's racial and ethnic makeup often don't reflect a multiracial population that has increased by 276% since the 2010 census. They focus instead on racial groups that are made up of people who marked only one box, with multiracial people sometimes lumped together in a catchall group.

Using the new 2020 census results, here's what a breakdown with a catchall group for multiracial people looks like:


But a different kind of breakdown can show how racial groups are becoming more heterogeneous. This graphic shows the number of people who said they identified with each race, regardless of how many races they chose. For example, if a person said they identified as Black and Asian, they would appear in both racial categories.


And there are other ways, of course, to slice the data, including incorporating people who identify as Hispanic or Latino — and who, according to federal standards, can be of any race — into the different racial groups.

To make matters more complicated, research by the Census Bureau has shown that how some people self-report their racial and ethnic identity can change from census to census.

Any analysis of this data represents a different way of understanding race and ethnicity in the U.S., where count after count people have made clear that their identities often cannot fit neatly into check boxes on census forms.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.