Latest census reveals NJ’s increasingly diverse population

Garden State residents share pride in multicultural backgrounds, praise U.S. census for opening more to complex racial questions
Credit: (Courtesy of the Yao family)
John Yao with his wife Hilda and their sons Elias and Matthew

John Yao was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents and his wife Hilda was born in Brooklyn and is the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants. When they filled out the U.S. census last year they included their two sons in the decennial count for the first time.

Even though he finds the race categories listed in most surveys not truly reflective of the diverse Asian and Latino communities that live in the United States, Yao said he checked off “Asian” for himself and identified his children as Asian and Hispanic. On some occasions, Yao said, he checks off “other” when given the option under race.

“I know people are from different, diverse parts of a diaspora who may or may not share a language or physical features, and they clump them together, but we fill out the census because we are all competing for resources, and the government officials are using this document to determine allocations,’’ Yao said.

The Yao family, of Pompton Lakes, is among the growing multiracial population in the United States, and today the census is expected to release new data showing the country is becoming more diverse and its white population shrinking.

Declining white population

Since 2010, the number of white people who don’t identify as Hispanic has dropped. That decline has been increasing with the number of non-Hispanic whites falling by more than a half-million people from 2016 to 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.

Estimates released by the census bureau last year showed that for the first time, nonwhites and Hispanics were the majority of people under age 16 in 2019, an expected demographic shift that will grow in the coming decades.

The data expected to be released this week is the first since the U.S. census released population counts in April.

The data will include information on housing units as well as population totals by race and Hispanic and Latino origin and the voting age population. And it will be used to redraw state legislative and congressional districts for the next decade.

The 2020 Census asked about Hispanic origin and race in two different questions. First, respondents were asked if they were Hispanic or Latino and to write their country of origin. Then, they were asked to check off their race.

Carolyn A. Liebler, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, said that in previous census surveys there was a race question as well as an ancestry question, but the U.S. Census Bureau eliminated the ancestry question for the 2010 survey.

Specifying origins

This year, those who checked off Black or white for race were for the first time given a space to write country of origin.

Liebler said despite the complexity of the race question, she expects that by allowing respondents to fill in “origin,” the census will be more detailed.

“Our country is full of complicated, different scenarios, a person born in one country from parents from another country who come here, so we have a diverse country, but we have this limitation that the census could only have one or two questions,’’ she said. “And so, I think the census bureau is doing the best they can given that limitation, but it’s never going to be a great question because of the complexities.”

A study by the Pew Research Center found that about half of Americans say census questions reflect their identity. The share of respondents who did not think the questions were reflective was higher for Hispanic adults than for white and Black adults, Pew found.

Liebler said she has found through research that race and ethnicity responses can change over time as well, something that people should consider when analyzing data.

Raising questions in Teaneck

Shani Strand, 25, who grew up in Teaneck, comes from a mixed background. Her mother was born and raised in Jamaica, she said, and her father is white and raised in the United States with Swedish ancestry. When she filled out the census last year, she said for the race question she only marked the box for Black. She said she couldn’t remember if she wrote down Jamaica or Swedish-American in the box for origin.

“I have a white parent, and I’m mixed and I’m biracial, but I’ve never experienced life as a white person,’’ Strand said. “So I feel like that when it goes on the census and at least historically in the U.S. most Black people in the U.S. are partially mixed.”

Nadia Hussain of Bloomingdale is the daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh; her husband, Roberto, was born in El Salvador. The mother of two boys, ages 6 and 15 months, also included her sons in the census count last year for the first time and identified them as Asian with Bangladeshi background, as well as Hispanic.

Credit: (Courtesy of Nadia Hussain)
Nadia Hussain, left, with her husband Roberto, children Zakir and Emiliano and her mother, Sultana Ferial

“It really fills me with a lot of pride,’’ she said. “For me I’ve always been a fan of multiculturalism and have always felt the exchange of cultures and diversity is a beautiful thing. I’m not from a mixed background … so I’m very proud that my children are American and come from different backgrounds.”

Stressing multiculturalism

Anna Coats, 38, of Bloomfield said her father is white of Hungarian and Scottish ancestry, and her mother is ethnically Indian, born in Guyana. Her mother came to the United States when she was 19 years old. Coats was raised in New Jersey and said she always identified as being of mixed race, but that her mother’s family always taught her to identify as Indian. She said when she has to fill out a survey like the census, she usually checks off white, Asian, and other.

Credit: (Courtesy of Anna Coats)
Anna Coats said when she has to fill out a survey like the census, she usually checks off white, Asian, and other.

Coats said that as a child she would get bullied for the way she looked and was encouraged not to talk about her background. But as she got older, she has sought out social-justice groups and is now more comfortable talking about her diverse background.

“There is this perception on who gets to be American,’’ she said. “We can talk about how race is a social construct, which it is, but there (are) real consequences for that. So this is an issue we need to be able to talk about openly and know who is here, and what can we do to make people in our community feel welcomed and included.”

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