At the outset, the recently released data from the 2020 United States census is historic for more reasons than one. The census findings on race and ethnicity, which are particularly significant, indicate that for the first time in America’s history, the White population, in absolute numbers, has declined. Between 2010-2020, America’s White population shrank from 63.7% to 57.8%. This is a near 9% decrease in absolute terms.

In contrast, people of colour rose from 34% of the total US population in 2010 to 43% in 2020. This means that between 2010-2020, America’s population growth was entirely driven by those identifying as Latino or Hispanic, Black, Asian American, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and as two or more races. In contrast, non-Hispanic Whites registered their most significant decline since the US census began in 1790.

Apart from this “big picture”, the demographic nuances of individual racial and ethnic minorities are also noteworthy. Between 2010-2020, individuals identifying as Latino or Hispanic grew from 16.3% to 18.7%, meaning that in terms of absolute numbers Latinos accounted for nearly half of the coloured population growth in the past ten years.

A significant increase was also registered in those who identified as Asian Americans, growing from 4.7% to 5.9% in the last decade. In relation, the proportion of Blacks remained relatively constant, 12.2% in 2010 compared to 12.1% in 2020. Put in a broader perspective, in 1980 Whites comprised almost 80% of the US national population, with Blacks accounting for 11.5%, and Latinos or Hispanics at 6.4%. Four decades later the demographic make-up of the US appears to tell a markedly different story about the nation’s increasing racial and ethnic diversification.

Slowing growth

Notwithstanding these broad demographic shifts in favour of racial and ethnic diversity, it should also be remembered that the period from 2010-2020 is the second-slowest period of population growth rate in American history. Overall population growth has slowed dramatically over the last decade.

Further, the White population, despite its largest recorded decline in the nation’s history, continues to be the largest racial and ethnic group in the US. Demographers also caution that the absolute decline in Whites might be a result of the fact that more people, including White Americans, are now self-identifying as multiracial.

In 2000, for the first time, Americans were given the option to choose more than one race to describe themselves, allowing for an empirical assessment of multiracial identities. The latest census reflects such multiracial affiliations with those identifying themselves as belonging to two or more races registering a staggering growth rate of 276%. Between 2010-2020, those identifying as multiracial tripled from 9 million to 33.8 million meaning they now account for 10% of the US population.

How people self-identify is a complex process that depends on personal and public perceptions, individual and communitarian heritage, social and cultural capital and the prevailing political stakes of identification, affiliation and racialisation.

For the first time in 2020 census forms asked respondents who choose White or Black as their race to give more information about their origins – for example German, Irish, African-American, Haitian, Somali and the like. The 2020 census also dropped the racially sensitive category “Negro” and used “Black or African-American” in its place. In a sense then, it may even be argued that shifts in America’s racial and ethnic diversity numbers can be explained more by symbolic changes to the census questionnaire that don’t necessarily reflect substantive political-economic and structural changes on the ground.

Another intriguing census trend by race and ethnicity can be gleaned from the fact that people of colour now comprise over half of America’s under-18 youth population. While the overall American population is ageing with higher proportions of Whites in older age-groups, people of colour are now significantly driving the growth rate of the younger age-groups. Between 2010-2020, Latino or Hispanic youth, Asian American youth, and youth identifying with two or more races contributed to almost all of the under-18 population growth.

For the same period there were modest declines in the number of Black, American Indian, Native Islander and White youths. In 2020, Latino or Hispanic youth comprised 25.7% of the nation’s total youth population and Black youth 13.2%.

Changing trends

While it may be tempting to suggest that a Latino boom is responsible for the significant overall increase in populations of colour over the past decade, in reality individual racial and ethnic minority growth rates too have declined. Researchers from the Pew Research Center suggest an important factor here is the overall decline in immigration over the past decade and particularly from Mexico during the Trump years, due to which the annual number of births to Hispanic women in the US have decreased. Latinos, who are today among the youngest Americans are now the second-largest racial or ethnic group, behind White non-Hispanics.

Among the Black population, especially fascinating are changing trends in racial self-identification. Latest Pew Research Center data suggests that among those who self-identify as “Black or African American,” individuals who say it is their only racial or ethnic identification have declined over the past two decades. In 2000, 93% respondents identified their race and ethnicity as Black alone. In 2019, 87% (40.7 million) identified their race as Black alone and their ethnicity as non-Hispanic, while 8% (3.7 million) indicated their race was Black and another race (most often White) and not Hispanic. Another 5% (2.4 million) self-identified as both Black and Hispanic, or Black Hispanic.

This complex social fact of multiracial self-identification thus encompasses not only Whites but also Black Americans though political and racial reasons for it likely differ between both communities. What this confirms is the fact that Black racial identity – like other identities of colour in America – is not monolithic but deeply nuanced and intricately tied to plural histories of migration and ethnic affiliation, requiring equally enhanced and intricate demographic metrics to be mapped and monitored adequately.

In light of these fascinating and occasionally confounding trends, it behoves us to ask what does this increasing multiracial identity represent in the US today? Does growing racial diversification, which the latest census confirms, mean racism and racism-related effects on minorities have commensurately reduced?

In this light, consider the 2021 Best Countries report of 78 nations ranked on parameters of racial equality in which the US ranked 69, far below Brazil, South Africa, China, Egypt and even India. Aside from this, judging by the recent spate of race-related hate-crimes and violence against people of colour in the US today it would be disingenuous if not downright deceitful to suggest that structural racism has declined in a country in which Blacks are killed by the police at nearly three times the rate of Whites, suffer six times higher rates of incarceration than Whites, and have median incomes nearly 10 times less than Whites.

Latest US Covid-19 data on mortality, infections, health retention and resilience across age and income brackets among communities of colour (which the latest census enumerates till mid 2020) only confirms the disproportionately negative racial bias against Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans in relation to Whites.

We must equally bear in mind that such statistics on racial disparities only cover those acts of racism and those effects of racism-related exposures that are explicity and overtly visible and therefore measurable. As health equity researchers have long argued, racism distinguishes itself by engendering and instituting “unmeasurable” biases, prejudices, stereotypes and differences, which most often go unaccounted even though they translate into embodied disparities for people of colour.

Undercounting Blacks

It is equally instructive that while race plays a fundamental role in structuring American society, it also distorts census data by influencing counts in racialized terms. Black communities have been historically undercounted for decades in decennial censuses. In the 1990 census, a net undercount of 4% for African Americans was estimated. In the 2010 census, reports indicated 9% of Black people in the US were missed, a rate significantly higher than any other racial or ethnic group. Reports also suggest black children are twice as likely to be undercounted as non-Black children.

Similar distortions are known to occur with proportions of the Black male population whose disproportionate presence in the American criminal justice system and higher rates of mortality mean they are significantly “missing” in the census data on their communities. Historically too, counting disparities is directly linked with racism – the infamous “Three-Fifths Compromise” in 1787 had inhumanly dictated that each enslaved African American be counted as three-fifths of a person.

The undercounting of Blacks is further imperilled by reports of the overcounting of non-Hispanic Whites who have benefitted from “more than their share” of political and welfare benefits. It’s no surprise then that recent years have also seen the emergence of community-driven initiatives like the Black Census Project and Data for Black Lives spearheaded by communities of colour to provide a more granular and nuanced portrait of their racialised everyday existence beyond the official census.

What can India learn from the aforementioned contours of America’s racial and ethnic census? For one, matters of social, economic, political and cultural inclusion, which rest on the empirical enumeration of inequality and the recorded experiences of marginalised communities need to be concretely and consistently substantiated by cross-sectional surveys like the census.

Recent debates in India about a full fledged caste census, which the government of the day continues to deny (a stance essentially similar to it’s predecessors) reflects most poorly on the government’s own ability to politically, philosophically and practically address the concerns of those historically disadvantaged and dispossessed communities who constitute a demographic majority (Bahujan) but for whom caste appears to be the only available resource with which moral and material claims can be made on a structurally unequal playing field.

As sociologist Satish Deshpande has argued, the absence of nuanced data and information on caste is unmistakably an effect of caste privilege and power. The census, Deshpande argues, has always been controlled “by those who count rather than those who are counted or those who do the counting”.

Fears of the growing visibility of caste constantly cited by those who deny the need for a full fledged caste census in India are unsound for multiple reasons. Firstly, such brahmanical fears couched on behalf of the underclass are essentially anxieties born from savarna caste privelege and the knowledge that upper castes are constitutionally and demographically an unmeasured minority even though they control the lion’s-share of bureaucratic and political capital in India.

Secondly, upper-caste fears about electorally unleashing the demons of divisiveness through a caste census perniciously deny the most basic social fact of Indian existence and the everyday experiences of marginalised communities who must live within interlocking varna-jati-gender constraints regardless of the Indian Constitution’s stubborn refusal to recognise caste beyond aggregate categories like Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe/Other Backward Classes.

Thirdly, by preventing a caste census that could potentially map the complex ways in which jati-based affiliations are forged by marginalised groups in everyday terms, savarnas and other privileged “forward castes” want to retain a sanitised, monolithic and “modern’”view of caste (essentially by overemphasising its class dimensions).

Is it not one of the greatest ironies that starting from 1865, each successive colonial census (and decennial census from 1881 onwards) upto 1931 attempted to enumerate India’s castes through a combination of empirical-ethnographic methods?

Fourthly, savarna fears of the caste census upsetting the already skewed “balance” of reservations betrays the parochiality of public and governmental thinking about affirmative action. Not only is nuanced jati-based data on castes imperative to allow spheres beyond government jobs and political representation like public health and the private sector to systematically address the embodied inequalities of marginalised castes, data derived from such an exercise can also help nuance existing economic and anti-poverty measures in line with targetted gender justice and the Indian state’s nascent promotion of cooperatives.

Fifth, there is a growing wealth of evidence of systematic within-caste inequality in addition to between-caste inequality that can only be addressed if a sociologically sound portrait of India’s contemporary caste contours is available as a blueprint. The recent passage of the 127th constitutional amendment empowering states to make their own OBC lists morally compels the government to initiate a full fledged demographic caste census.

In the US, white supremacists and conservatives, disturbed by the latest census results on race and ethnicity are attempting to use data of growing demographic diversification to promote the fallacious myth of a post-race America. In India, the summary denial of a comprehensive caste census forms the basis of the deep-seated brahmanical stance that disingeneously emphasizes contemporary India’s “casteless-ness”.

In both cases, however, it is the structural realities and complexities of racism and casteism that are truly diversifying and taking on newer, covert forms. A comprehensive census will only bring to light the inconsistencies and idiocies of both these patently privileged political positions. In the case of India, a caste census will truly enable us to understand the demographic grammars through which caste is lived and experienced in everyday terms.

Nikhil Pandhi is a doctoral candidate in medical and cultural anthropology at Princeton University. A Rhodes Scholar, his research uses ethnographic methods to investigate global health equity and the structural and social determinants of health in India.