Americans Vastly Overestimate How Diverse the Country Really Is

Which may help explain how they feel about demographic change.

In the last few years, the U.S. Census Bureau has released a series of high-profile projections narrowing in on a significant demographic milestone for the United States set to take place in the early 2040s. By then, America's population will for the first time become "majority-minority" (the Census Bureau has revised the target a few times between 2043 and 2041). At that moment, non-Hispanic whites will make up less than 50 percent of the U.S. population. And groups that we now consider "minorities" will collectively make up the largest share.

In effect, no individual group in America will constitute a "majority" any more.

That moment is still three decades away. But apparently most Americans think it's already nearly upon us. The Center for American Progress, PolicyLink and the Rockefeller Foundation released some interesting survey data today on perceptions about America's looming demographic change. One of the first questions asked of nearly 3,000 adults (with an over-sample of minorities): What percentage of the current population do you think are racial and ethnic minorities?

On average, people went with 49 percent. The reality is closer to 37 percent.

Survey research by the Center for American Progress and PolicyLink, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation

(Not surprisingly, Americans also overestimate another demographic trend frequently in the news: the growth of the elderly population.)

On diversity, this baseline misperception is useful context for some of the other polling results that show, for instance, 54 percent of people are worried there won't be enough jobs to go around in an increasingly diverse America, or that 47 percent believe rising diversity will cause crime and neighborhood problems to increase, or that 62 percent believe there will be too many demands as a result on government services. Likely, the demographic change many people are envisioning at the root of these fears is more dramatic – and immediate – than the change that is actually coming.

On balance, the report's authors stress that Americans are much more optimistic about the benefits of diversity – and more willing to invest in reducing inequality between racial groups – than "is commonly portrayed in politics and the media." But the responses also varied in significant ways by demographic group, suggesting that those groups most threatened by a change in the status quo (working-class whites and seniors) are least enthusiastic about demographic change. The report constructed a 160-point composite index on "openness to diversity" in response to 16 questions about the topic, with these results:

The report's otherwise cheery assessment also unearthed a crucial point of contention going forward. A large number of respondents – and a majority of white conservatives – agreed with these two statements:

High levels of racial and ethnic inequality are a natural outcome of the economy and don’t hold back overall growth.

Government policies and investments to reduce ethnic and racial inequality would not work and would just interfere with economic growth.

In a future when minorities make up an ever-larger share of the U.S. population, it will be more crucial than ever to close education and income gaps, lest the country leave behind the most rapidly growing share of its future workforce. But that's not an obvious case to make to skeptics who believe that inequality is a natural byproduct of economic success, or that addressing it head-on would hinder rather than help the economy.

For now, Americans are still closely divided on these questions:

All charts and data courtesy of the Center for American Progress, PolicyLink and the Rockefeller Foundation (overall results have a margin of error of +/- 1.8 percent).

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.