How Oregon’s statistics on race often get misinterpreted

By Jeff Mapes (OPB)
Aug. 10, 2020 1 p.m.

Mistaken use of a key statistic often understates the state's growing diversity.

Oregon has one of the smallest Black populations in the country and a large white majority, a fact highlighted when Portland was in the national news last month after the Trump administration sent federal officers into the city.

But the coverage sometimes used U.S. Census statistics in a way that overstated the size of the white majority and obscured the rise of Oregon’s Latino population.


The confusion lies in how demographers track racial identifiers, the many nuances of ethnicity – and even the way statistics are displayed on the Census website.

Akiim DeShay, who owns a Houston-based firm that studies Black demographics, said Census figures can be easy to misinterpret. “It does happen a lot,” he said. “It really takes someone who understands the definition of Census numbers.”

Much, but not all, of the confusion revolves around the statistics documenting Oregon’s largest minority group: the 13.3 percent of people who describe themselves as Latino or Hispanic. The Census Bureau sees this as an ethnicity – in this case, a shared heritage – and not as race, a social construct usually linked with physical traits such as skin color. So Latinos are also asked to separately describe their race and, for a variety of reasons, many identify as white on the Census form.

But DeShay said many Americans don’t see this distinction between ethnicity and race.

“Generally speaking, culturally speaking, we see white, black, Hispanic, Asian as all these different races,” he said. “And I think that’s pretty much where the confusion is.”

The Census Bureau’s popular “Quick Facts” feature on its website includes several key statistics covering the United States, individual states and localities. Among them are charts on race and ethnicity.

The first line is labeled “white alone,” which includes everyone who identifies as white and no other race. For Oregon, that figure is 86.7%.

To the unwary, it sounds straight-forward enough. In recent weeks, The New York Times and USA Today both described Oregon as 87% white. Locally, that statistic was also used by KGW TV and Oregon Public Broadcasting (which later amended the story to include a broader picture of Oregon’s diversity).

At the bottom of the Census chart, the non-Hispanic white population is listed at 75.1%. That includes everyone who identifies as white except for people who identify as Latino.

“That’s the number you should be using,” said Charles Rynerson, a demographer at Portland State University’s Population Research Center. He said experts typically use this number to give the most accurate snapshot of the population.

Race/Ethnicity Percentage of Oregon population
Non-Hispanic White 75.1%
Latino 13.3%
Asian 6.2%
American Indian & Alaska Native 3.0%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2018, 2019. Figures do not add to 100% because some categories reflect people who listed more than one race.

Rynerson said the “white alone” figure in recent Census estimates uses statistical assumptions that aren’t valid. He argues that this winds up including too many Latinos, inflating the “white alone” finding.

“It’s a mess,” he said of the 87% statistic.

The difference between the “white alone” population and the “non-Hispanic white population” may not seem that dramatic in Oregon – although it does involve more than 500,000 people out of a population of about 4.2 million.

But using the “white alone” figure can dramatically distort reality in some states. For example, the latest Census estimates show the “white alone” population for California is 71.9%. But the non-Hispanic white population is actually only about half of that, at 36.5%.


In fact, California is one of five states in the country – along with Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas – where no single ethnic group accounts for a majority of the population.

The Census Bureau’s quick facts chart also tends to make the Black and Asian populations look even smaller than they are in Oregon. For example, it’s often reported that Oregon’s Black population is 2.2%, which is how it is stated on the quick facts chart. However, demographers like DeShay and Rynerson also usually add in people who identify themselves as both black and white. That increases the number by a third, to 2.9%, or more than 120,000 people. Those figures are a little harder to dig out on the Census website.

Similarly, less than 5% of Oregonians identified their race as solely Asian, a broad categorization that includes people tied to countries ranging from India to China. That percentage rises to 6.2% when everyone who listed themselves as Asian and another race is included.

Rynerson said that “our Latino and Asian populations are what gives Oregon most of our diversity.” Only eight states have a lower Black population in percentage terms. But 20 states are less diverse overall, according to Rynerson’s analysis.

Roberto de Anda, a Portland State University professor who directs the university’s Chicano Latino Studies program, said race is a complex story among Latinos in the United States.

“In the U.S., the norm is that if you have a drop of Black blood, you’re identified as Black,” he said. “Whereas in Latin America, that is not the case.”

Discrimination against people with darker skin is prevalent throughout Latin America, he said, and many Latin Americans label themselves as white. De Anda said that was particularly common among Mexican-Americans who settled in the U.S. generations ago. But the trend began to change amid the Civil Rights movement a half-century ago.

De Anda remembers growing up in California when many younger Mexican-Americans began proudly identifying themselves as Chicano.

“These young men and women in the ’60s and ’70s were saying, ‘We’re not white. We’re not treated as white so we’re not white,’” de Anda said. “They claimed their indigenous roots.”

Wendy Roth, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who researches racial classifications, said many Latinos would simply prefer to identify their race by using such terms as Hispanic, Latino, Latina or Latinx. She said that in her research, Latinos will often say, “Well, I don’t really see myself as white, but I’m checking white on the Census questions because I don’t know what else to put.”

In the 2010 Census, 44% of Latinos in Oregon identified themselves as white. Another 7% listed white as well as another race, said Rynerson, the PSU demographer.

Under the Obama administration, the Census Bureau was moving to change the Census so that the race and ethnicity questions would be combined into one. Roth said that would “better represent the experience of most Latinos.”

However, the Trump administration decided not to have a combined question on the 2020 Census. Instead it continues to ask respondents if they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish heritage, and then ask their race.

For most of its history as a state, Oregon was a place where white people held full political and economic control and pushed others to the margins, through force or policy or a combination of both. The original state constitution banned Black people from settling in the state. Native Americans were forcibly displaced from their traditional lands. Chinese settlers were often met with violence.

As late as the 1990 Census, more than nine out of 10 Oregonians identified as non-Hispanic white people. But change was coming.

“The 1990s were big years for Latino immigration, both in Oregon and nationally,” said Rynerson. That immigration has slowed greatly, but the Latino population is still a key part of Oregon’s growth. Its members tend to be much younger. Meanwhile, Oregon’s white population is aging and leveling out.

Rynerson analyzed the 2019 Census estimates and found that people of color make up just 10% of Oregonians 65 or older. But they are 37% of those under the age of 15.

Oregon’s Asian population has also grown significantly, from 2.4% in 1990 to 6.2% in the latest Census estimates. The Black population rose from 1.6% in 1990 to 2.9% in the 2019 Census estimates. Rynerson cautioned that the different years may not be directly comparable because the Census did not allow people to list more than one race until 2000.

Rynerson does expect Oregon to become more diverse, although he cautioned that long-range projections can be tricky. It’s hard, he said, to take into account the impact of unforeseen events – like the pandemic we’re enduring – that affect the economy, migration and longevity. And society may categorize people differently, abandoning some racial categories and adding others, something he said has frequently happened in the history of the Census.


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