An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2005

Race on the 2010 census: Hispanics & the shrinking white majority

Ian Haney Lopez

Ian Haney López is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book, “Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice” (2003), uses the legal history of the Mexican American civil rights struggle to explore the relationship between legal violence and racial identity. His previous book, “White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race” (1996), examined a series of court cases determining who was white and on what grounds under U.S. naturalization law.

At our country’s founding, we made race the constitutional test for those capable of self-government. Our nation’s organic document allocated congressional seats among the states in proportion to “the whole Number of free Persons . . . excluding Indians not taxed [and] three fifths of all other Persons.”1 The Constitution then commanded that a census divine those racial numbers every ten years. From its first enumeration in 1790, the decennial census formed part of the process by which the racial state elaborated itself and society, race and democracy.

In the two centuries plus since, every census has tabulated the number of “white” persons in the United States.2 The original Constitution clearly envisioned a polity comprised of whites– they would be, as the Census Bureau put it in 1852, “the governing race.”3  And whites have remained politically, economically, and socially dominant, notwithstanding the Reconstruction amendments that ended the explicit allocation of political representation along racial lines. The modern census shows that by almost every relevant sociological measure, whites continue to occupy the superior position in American society.

But a demographic revolution is underway, partly as a result of a long history of U.S. expansion, colonial incursions, and gunboat diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere. Latin Americans for several decades have composed the largest immigrant group in the United States, and this trend will continue, if not accelerate. Not even closing the border would significantly disrupt this development. Domestic births currently outpace immigration as the primary source of Latino population growth, with births to Hispanic mothers outnumbering all other deliveries combined in bellwether California. The U.S. Latino population increased 58 percent between 1990 and 2000, and this group, the largest minority in the country, now accounts for more than one of every eight Americans.4  The Census Bureau conservatively estimates that by 2020 Latinos will number 17 percent of the country.

What, then, of the white population in 2020? The Census Bureau projects that whites will still constitute a comfortable majority at 79 percent. But it gets this figure only by including ‘Hispanic whites,’ those Latinos who identify as racially white on the census. Without those Latino millions, the Bureau estimates that in the next fifteen years whites will fall to just sixty-four of every hundred Americans.5

So there it is: if Latinos are not counted as white, then whites within a few years will barely comprise three-fifths of all Americans, and not too long after that, probably before 2050, a numerical minority. .  .  .


  • 1U.S. Const., art. I, § 2, cl. 3.
  • 2Melissa Nobles, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000), 28, 44. The 1850 and 1860 censuses constitute partial exceptions: “white” did not appear on the census schedule, but enumerators were instructed “in all cases where a person is white [to] leave the space blank.”
  • 3Quoted in Clara E. Rodríguez, Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 76.
  • 4U.S. Bureau of the Census, The Hispanic Population: Census 2000 Brief (May 2001), 2.
  • 5The population projections are taken from U.S. Bureau of the Census, Population Projections Program, Population Division, Projections of the Resident Population by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Nativity: Middle Series, 2016 to 2020 <> (accessed January 13, 2000), and U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports: Population Projections of the United States by Age, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1995 to 2050 (1996), 13.
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