How many minorities are there in the USA?

By Razib Khan | January 7, 2012 12:56 pm

Prompted by Andrea Mitchell’s complaint that Iowa is not representative of America in racial terms the Audacious Epigone probed an American state’s typicality in terms of racial demographics, using the overall American population as a measure. One of the major issues with judging the typicality of a given state is that there is a great deal of residential segregation in even “diverse” regions. This comes up in our personal choices too. In 2008 ~10 percent of non-Hispanic whites married someone who was not a non-Hispanic white. Obviously more than ~10 percent of the population, particularly in the prime marrying demographic, are non-Hispanic whites, so you’re seeing a fair amount of homogamy. In some ways the homogamy is even more striking for minorities. ~31 percent of Asian Americans in this period married a non-Asian American. But, one has to keep in mind that using the American population as representative over 90 percent of the potential marriage partners are not Asian American!

The quest for a state that “looks like America” is understandable, but the reality of lived life is more complex. And not just in racial terms (e.g., the division in politics between the white suburbs of Maryland vs. Virginia on either side of D.C.). But keeping race in mind, one consistent finding in social science is that Americans actually tend to overestimate the number of minorities. Iowa is actually more typical than we think, despite the fact that it is not typical. In the year 2000 the General Social Survey asked respondents to estimate the number of various groups in the USA. The finding of a tendency to overestimate minorities, and underestimate non-Hispanic whites, was confirmed. But, I decided to break this down by demographic. The results are below in a table.

The first row are real counts from the 2000 Census. All the following rows are average estimates of a set of respondents in the year 2000.

ResultsWhiteBlackHispanicAsianJews Δ whites Δ minorities
Real Value 2000 Census69.112.312.53.63.0
Total Sample59.031.324.617.717.7-10.115.1
Under 3556.832.525.018.316.6-12.315.8
35 to 6459.730.524.317.117.8-9.414.5
Over 6561.931.224.318.320.1-7.215.1
No College58.433.425.919.119.1-10.716.7
No Religion59.029.424.416.116.1-10.113.8
Favor ban interracial marriage59.337.727.721.020.7-9.819.3
Against ban interracial marriage58.630.324.417.817.5-10.514.7

As you can see when you add up the elements on the row margins you get more than 100 percent. Why? Because I’m averaging the responses of individuals, and they aren’t talking to each other and figuring that you can’t get more than 100 percent as a collective whole. Across the demographics there is an average underestimate in absolute values of non-Hispanic whites by 10 percentage points, and an overestimate of minorities (excluding Jews here) of about 15 percentage points. The differences from the real value though were consistent with the relationships of the real values. The correlations were almost around around 0.98, which means that rarely did you come out with a scenario where a demographic estimated 5 percent for blacks, and 25 percent for Hispanics. Rather, there was a consistent overestimate of minorities, and underestimate of whites.

Taking into account both over and under estimations it looks like those with at least college educations do the best (the number of Jews in the sample was rather small, so take it with a grain of salt). But even here there is a skew in numbers. Why does this exist? My own initial hunch is that the national media is very unrepresentative of America. Set in New York or Los Angeles they reflect the demographics of those regions. Or do they? I haven’t watched much TV in a while, but I do recall the amusing reality that Seinfeld and Friends were set in New York, but minorities were very much token characters in the majority-minority city where the protagonists were resident. But, to be fair I think that may be a real reflection of lives lived, where different races and ethnic groups simply socialize with their “own” (in Manhattan the Upper East Side is ~85 percent non-Hispanic white, on an island that is ~50 percent non-Hispanic white, in a city that is ~33 percent non-Hispanic white).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, Demographics

Comments (34)

  1. marcel

    I’m a bit confused by the categories, esp. “Asian”. First, are those of (what I think of as) west Asian descent white or Asian? Second, given that we are talking about perceptions (esp. those of non-members of various groups), does it make any sense to aggregate south Asians and east Asians? Not that this would substantively affect anything in this post, just wondering (as a secular Jew amused by my apparently tenuous hold on classification as white).

  2. #1, south asians are asian. west asians and north africans are “non-hispanic white.” afghan pashtuns are white. pakistani pashtuns are asian. at least according to the census.

  3. zarzal

    Regarding the media and accuracy of demographics, you made a good point that Seinfield and Friends actually show the social circles of the main characters, but, if you want to talk about media demographics and random people, a few movies come to mind, especially the recent Spiderman films (which have several street scenes with crowds and random characters with minor dialogue) —- demographically, they make NYC look like Portland.
    I can’t think of other movies now, but I’m sure there are many (just look at almost any movie set in LA).

  4. Stefan

    I’m perry sure the census doesn’t have a Jewish classification. Where is the 3% from?

  5. Where is the 3% from?

    stuff like this:

    the percentage depends on the definition. using a very narrow definition gives you ~2 percent (religious jews), a broader one can push it up to ~4 (anyone with a recent jewish background).

  6. Justin Giancola

    2. I feel like the people making these censuses are stuck in the turn of century with Madison Grant and co. It’s basically a ‘you guys are so marginal you don’t deserve your own category’ – like native americans, really??!…can’t stop insulting those guys!?

  7. #6, the categories are all politics. at some point perhaps middle easterners will lobby? the issue is that until recently most middle easterners were overwhelmingly xtian, and identified as white ethnics (though of course people like you are quite keen to be conscious of their wog status 🙂 muslims are less white identified.

  8. RafeK

    I don’t watch many tv series, basically just Dexter and Bones, I do watch sports the promo’s I see for shows and the commercials seem to reflect significantly more black americans then 12 percent I don’t see a strong pattern with other minorities. I started to look through IMBD to try and confirm my impression did see an easy way to get good data.

  9. #8, yeah. but blacks are often ghettoized on “black shows.” that being said, there aren’t latino r asian shows on mainstream networks….

  10. Wes

    I wonder if people are basing it on their impressions of younger populations, say people under 40, and maybe that is why it is skewed? I wonder how much the real numbers change for people under say 40 or 30? When I drive around my multiracial city, it seems like the younger you go, the less White.

  11. #8, TV commercials are hard to categorize. Blacks are greatly overrepresented, and are often shown in contexts (e.g. one black among a few friends going out for dinner) that tend not to be multiracial in real life. In contrast, Hispanics are almost certainly underrepresented in commercials, probably Asians too.

  12. John Emerson

    When I visited Manhattan recently it was much whiter than I had expected.

    Set in New York or Los Angeles they reflect the demographics of those regions.

    A lot of them might be upward mobile migrants, but after working in NY-LA for awhile and socializing exclusively with their own set, they become provincial upper-middle class coastals. There also seems to be a media policy of multi-ethnicity within their tremendously narrow selection pool of good-looking glib people, e.g., perky Asian-American women in addition to perky blonde women, or smooth black guys in addition to smooth white guys.

  13. Karl Zimmerman

    This reminded me of the Gallup study from last year which found the average American now thinks 25% of the population is gay. Something which is off by nearly an order of magnitude.

    I think it has relatively little to do with the “multicultural” media, and instead is mainly about people (even bright people) being very bad at understanding statistics. The human mind tends to focus not on patterns which happen the majority of the time, but exceptions to those rules. Thus, the “minorities” are overemphasized in our own consciousness.

    As an example, I remember reading in a book on Star Trek around a decade ago all post TOS series tried to keep to a long-standing TV rule of having the cast only have 2-3 female main characters, because it’s been found if a cast goes past 1/3rd female, even if women are still clearly in the minority it is perceived to have a female-dominated cast which turns off male viewers.

  14. Usman

    I remember hearing that Americans tend to greatly overestimate the number of blacks compared to the number of Hispanics, despite Hispanics now being greater in number. This might be explained by the fact that blacks seem to be overrepresented relative to Hispanics in the media.

  15. syon

    Justin Giancola:”2. I feel like the people making these censuses are stuck in the turn of century with Madison Grant and co. It’s basically a ‘you guys are so marginal you don’t deserve your own category’ – like native americans, really??!…can’t stop insulting those guys!?”

    A telling anecdote re: the racial/ethnic construction of Middle Easterners/North Africans:

    I was chatting with a colleague the other day, when the name of a certain scholar emerged. The colleague then went on a PC tirade, berating the man for possessing all of the stigmata of privilege: Whiteness, heterosexuality,Christianity, maleness, etc. The target of his opprobrium was born in the Middle East and immigrated to the USA as a boy, a fact well known to my colleague; indeed, the colleague is normally quite vociferous on the marginalized status of Middle Easterners/North Africans in Western society. Obviously, the Christian status of the man was the deciding factor. Jews and Christians from North Africa and the Middle East are White; Muslims are “other.”

  16. Doug1


    I think it has relatively little to do with the “multicultural” media, and instead is mainly about people (even bright people) being very bad at understanding statistics.

    I think it has a huge amount to do with the blacks and Jews promoting and featuring multicultural media. Most people being very poor with statistics is a compounding factor which tends to leave undisturbed the impression people get from the entertainment and advertising media.

  17. Clark

    What’s interesting is how similar a lot of the estimates actually are. The estimate of whites is typically around 60% with a low of ~57% by blacks and a high of 62% in the west. I suspect part of that difference is due to community bias. I remember when I lived in the ghetto in Louisiana I’d go a week without seeing a non-black person just because everyone shopped at the same shops and so the black community only saw blacks. Part of that was because communities then were still pretty racially segregated. There were only a few areas with mixed communities and then it was primarily newer middle class developments. I’m sure it’s changed since the late 80’s but it really shocked me when I first moved there. (I came from a heavily multicultural Canadian province)

    It’d be interesting to see if the figures move based upon the type of community one lives in. The one figure that suggests it might go the other direction was the youth statistic which had the lowest estimate for whites. I’m not sure what accounts for that unless it’s more media saturation in the under 35 crowd.

  18. I grew up in a city that has a fairly substantial number of Albanian and Kosovar Muslims. While they were considered white, it was a sort of grudging acceptance, people thought of them as “white-ish.” This despite the fact that most of them were quite secular and not at all economically disadvantaged, not to mention the fact that they were physically indistinguishable from “true” whites.

  19. chris w

    too many in my water park 🙂

  20. Karl Zimmerman

    People are making claims without any backing that minorities are massively over-represented in TV, and they just aren’t, period.

    From 2002:

    Despite the ever-increasing diversity of American society, prime time continues to depict a largely black and white world. Findings from the second year of the study revealed that both black and white Americans are over-represented in prime time, with whites accounting for about 74 percent of all characters, compared to only about 69 percent of the U.S. population. Blacks accounted for about 16 percent of all characters compared to about 12 percent of the population.

    Latinos accounted for only about 3 percent of all characters in prime time, compared to about 13 percent of the U.S. population. This more than four-to-one representation gap seems particularly anomalous given recent public discussions about the emergence of Latinos as the nation’s largest minority group.

    In 2008 the Screen Actors Guild did a study of all TV and movie roles and found 72.5% white, 13.3% black, 6.4% Latino, 3.8% Asian , 0.3% Native American and 3.8% other.

    A 2010 study of prime-time television (studying actors, not roles) found 74% white , 16% African-American, 5% Latino, 2% Asian, and 2% other. There was no significant change since a similar study in 2000.

    I was also considering linking to a study showing the guests on cable news are overwhelmingly white, but this is somewhat tangential.

    Regardless, all show essentially the same figures – whites and blacks over-represented, but just by a few percent, with Latinos under-represented. Adjusting for those in the U.S. who speak English well enough to follow American TV and movies, this is a pretty accurate representation of the U.S.

  21. syon

    Out of curiosity, I did a quick WIKIPEDIA scan of Americans of Middle Eastern/North African ancestry:

    Alia Shawkat: Iraqi father

    Shannon Elizabeth: Syrian father

    Danny Thomas: Lebanese

    Kathy Najimy: Lebanese

    Tony Shalhoub: Lebanese

    Ralph Nader:Lebanese

    Vic Tayback: Syrian

    Wendie Malick: Egyptian father

    John Sununu: Palestinian

    Spencer Abraham: Lebanese

    Adrian Pasdar: Iranian father

    John Abizaid: Lebanese

    Catherine Bell: Iranian mother

    Sarah Shahi: Iranian father

    The general impression is one of successful assimilation; i.e., no one seems to really seem to care about their ancestry. They are just White people.

  22. John Emerson

    In Portland, Oregon there’s a fully-assimilated Christian Arab-American community at least a century old. Actually two, Maronite and “Orthodox”. As far as I know they were just regarded as dark Mediterranean Christians like Greeks and Italians (and Armenians). That seems right by most standards, including their own. They were from Lebanon and Syria and have had some Western affiliation since the crusades. They’re white and Christian, speaking a non-Indo-European language like Hebrew, but from SW Asia rather than Europe.

  23. chris w

    I never noticed these white Christian Arabs here in Portland. Bud-dum-dum-pssh!!!

  24. Doug1


    I didn’t say minorities in general were way overrepresented on TV and in the movies. I said blacks are. The article you quoted doesn’t contradict that. Blacks having 16% of prime time roles is a 30% over representation, before even considering what parts of society TV usually finds interesting to portray.

    As well blacks are way overrepresented in prestige, very high IQ jobs on TV and in the movies, and a lot more black males are portrayed having sexual relationships with very attractive white females than happens in real life. To pick one example among many, what are the chances that jet black Foreman would not only be on House’s nation leading diagnostic medicine genius team, but be the star on that team, and have a relationship with the gorgeous 13 for a season or two to boot?

    I mean everyone on that team with the possible exception of the Aussi surgeon Chase is portrayed as having an IQ of 145 or above I’d say. Using a standard black mean IQ of 85 and the 12.5 SD La Grife du Lion says blacks have, and applying a normal distribution though Excel’s normdist without trying to compensate for fat tails, that puts the percentage of blacks with IQ’s at or above 145 at 0.00008% of the black American population. Let’s round up for fat tails to 0.0001%. Fat chance.

    To try to claim that Hollywood isn’t trying to do social engineering in favor of blacks would I think be pretty disingenuous.

    As for slightly over representing whites, whites are also over represented in leading positions in American life. Television and movies tend to either be about organized crime and police or other detectives, or people in the upper middle classes or above.

    Regardless, all show essentially the same figures – whites and blacks over-represented, but just by a few percent, with Latinos under-represented.

    Latinos are also underrepresented in leading or most interesting positions in American life. They mostly do the grunt work here, which isn’t very interesting most of the time. Latinos certainly weren’t underrepresented in the drug wars mini-series Traffic.

    I don’t think whites are overrepresented in the sorts of roles that TV usually finds interesting to portray, but blacks most definitely are. As well many shows especially cable ones are set in other eras when whites were even more dominant socially than now, and Hispanics virtually non existent. Boardwalk, Deadwook, Mad Men, Pan Am, The Playboy club are examples.

  25. John Emerson

    Arab American in Portland: Governor Atiyeh and the other Atiyehs, County Commisioner Dan Mosee, various Kafourys in the legislature and elsewhere, various Kahls, the Johns family. Arab-Americans as individuals have been a factor in Portland public life, but never have functioned as a voting bloc to my knowledge.

  26. syon

    chris w:”I never noticed these white Christian Arabs here in Portland. Bud-dum-dum-pssh!!!”

    That’s how successful assimilation works: People don’t notice.

  27. Justin Giancola

    hmm, I was going to post something really long but it was too long for me to feel comfortable as this is not my blog.

    15. and 18 help me with this point that I’d like to make that the word white now is total bullshit, and that it is really just a P.C. place holder for the privileged class. Think about it like this: it could be used to group those with light skin; people whose genetic ancestry comes from Europe; people practicing a European derived cultural form; those engaged in European religious practices. I’d say in that level of obviousness, cause c’mon it is a shorthand styling. I feel like the last two sort of go along for the ride.

    Most people we identify as white belong to all categories. But for those that don’t all you are saying is if you walked down the street in blue jeans and t-shirt (basically no overt ethnic styling, wearing of hair, etc.) you would blend in and people would intuitively include you in the majority privileged class. It’s more or less not being subject to negative profiling. (And then with he addition of accepted religion won’t persecute you should they find out)

    I hope you’d continue reading my post.

  28. Justin Giancola

    Also funny to some other comments is how when I went to Russia I had to dispel false ideas about the demographics of America! I’d say other countries perceptions aren’t far from the American ones!

  29. Karl Zimmerman


    First, you need to take into account that blacks make up a disproportionate percentage of TV viewers – somewhere on the order of 20%. So there will be some level of disproportional representation to cater to black viewers. It’s not a question of PC values, or promoting a social agenda, it’s a question of trying to not turn off a significant percentage of the audience completely.

    Second, there is the effect of black sitcoms to consider. Black sitcoms have fallen off the air recently, but they were a major force in TV up until last decade, and they did make a big difference in these studies, which took in data when UPN was still around and had several black-focused shows. The details in the links I provided explicitly mention the general segregation of networks and shows, although admittedly, this is pretty similar to real life.

    I haven’t really watched television since 2000 or so, so I can’t comment directly on House or any other show. Black doctors do exist, however, comprising around 3% of all American physicians. I do have to say in my experience TV writers don’t generally write high IQ well – most are of average to slightly-above-average intelligence, and have a hard time having their characters come up with something more clever than they would do themselves. However, even the idea of a high IQ black doctor isn’t impossible in real life. I found a list on this site of black Mensa members, meaning their minimum IQ is probably something like 131. Two of the featured profiles are in the medical field, and while a few seem to have significant white admixture, most are around as visibly black as Omar Epps. Yes, it’s very unlikely, but unusual characters are the staple of fiction regardless.

    As for black men in relationships with beautiful white women, in my experience this is very common, provided they are from the same social background. I live in Pittsburgh, and in my experience white urban white girls in their teens and 20s date black or white guys pretty indiscriminately. Perhaps upper-middle class white women in suburbs don’t, but that’s more a question of not knowing any. Black-white interracial marriage, on the other hand, is pretty rare – but I don’t think interracial marriage is commonly depicted on TV anyway.

    I do admit there is a grain of truth in what you’re saying, but as I intimated in the first paragraph, it springs from the expectation from media consumers that there will be “characters they can relate to.” As an extreme example, when the roleplaying game Dragon Age came out a few years ago, a lot of players were pissed because it was impossible to create a black main character. Never mind it was a setting based upon Britain in the middle ages, and the premise of a U.S.-style color line existing would require a nonsensical backstory it wouldn’t make sense to include. Of course, like every other such game in existence, it kept to modern ideals of gender equality, leading to female knights and other such silliness.

    This is the primary tension, I think, which causes us to see “Affirmative Action” in TV and other media. Developers want products which everyone can relate to. Black people have money too after all, and if a black doctor gets black people to watch the show, all the better. I highly doubt this really influences people to think there are far more black doctors than there are, however, as few white people probably ever have a black doctor in real life.

  30. WRT the idea of Arab Christians as white, with a few exceptions such as the Iraqis in Portland and the occasional Palestinian, most are from Lebanon or Syria – generally speaking, the Arab countries with the lightest people.

    If most Arab Christians in America were, say, Egyptian Copts, we wouldn’t think of Arab Christians as white.

  31. John Emerson

    I’ve known very few Arabs that were darker than dark Italians, though. Not surprising given the history of the Italian South.

  32. Justin Giancola

    Karl, want to hang out sometime?!

    live in North Hills.

  33. syon

    Peter:”If most Arab Christians in America were, say, Egyptian Copts, we wouldn’t think of Arab Christians as white.”

    I’m rather doubtful of this. I’ve known a few Copts* (I grew up near a Copt immigrant family), and they were well within the Southern European phenotypal range. Are there any studies comparing the complexions of Muslim and Christian Egyptians?

    *I might also add that many Copts do not identify as Arabs, preferring to see themselves as the descendants of the original Egyptians. Hence, using them as a benchmark for the “Arab” phenotype is somewhat problematic.

  34. Justin Giancola

    I’d like to see some ideas of where people are coming from here with the Southern European stuff that is always throw around. How much are we in tune with facial features over skin tone? And what features are obviously from recent (relative) admixture.

    “I might also add that many Copts do not identify as Arabs, preferring to see themselves as the descendants of the original Egyptians.”

    That is one of my contentions: would they see themselves as white? It’s like people with African ancestry here: whom you identify them as may not be what they see themselves as. They take pride in their own sense of conception. Where we try and make team white skin, light skin, brown skin, black skin is for what purpose? what game are we playing with this?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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