TU Professor Dr. Travis Lowe offers insight into Tulsa’s 2020 census data and critiques common conceptions of race.
Following the release of the 2020 census’ results, news articles emblazoned claims of dramatic shifting demographics. The phrase “majority-minority” and “less than 50 percent white” filled numerous headlines, hoping to draw eager and curious readers. However, these changes are not nearly as straightforward.
Particularly in the city of Tulsa, the recent census results showed a stark shift in population. In the 2010 census, 57.9 percent of Tulsa’s population identified as white. The 2020 census shows that this percentage decreased to 48.5 percent, with less than half of the city’s population identifying as white. However, this one-to-one comparison cannot be taken at face value.
Dr. Travis Lowe, professor of sociology at the University of Tulsa, discusses these population changes and the problematic portrayal of populations as “majority-minority.”
Given that the 2020 census asked the question of race with a new write-in option, this change belies results and comparisons from past years. As Dr. Lowe explains, “When you provide a write-in option, that’s going to affect how the data is measured.” Because of this new mode of collecting data for the race question specifically, “it’s going to be a lot more difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison.”
Particularly regarding the question of racial identity, Lowe explains that “The race variable is one that has received a lot of scrutiny over the decades. And then the big concern is that if and when we do change how this is measured, it is going to be more difficult to make those longitudinal comparisons.”
With this in mind, claims that Tulsa is now less than 50 percent white do not describe the full picture. The write-in option may have increased the number of people recorded in this new census data as identifying with more than one race. Indeed, as reflected in the national data, the aggregated 50 city populations gained nearly one million persons identifying with two or more races.
Dr. Lowe describes that someone who identifies as mixed race “could theoretically identify as one or the other depending on how the question was asked.” He continues by explaining that “Nowadays the color line is more fluid than it has ever been, because of the willingness of people to adopt these [multi-racial] identities.”
Rather than thinking along the dichotomous white/non-white line, it is important to be attentive to this fluidity of racial identity. As opposed to emboldening claims like “majority-minority,” we must look beyond these outdated conceptions of race.
Explaining the danger of phrases like “majority-minority,” Lowe explains his biggest concern that “it is easy to ‘other’ people that are in those nebulous, non-white categories.” These are people who “might have white ancestry or might even pass as white in their everyday life” but are “experiencing life differently than someone who identifies monoracially.”
“Race used to be seen in an exclusionary sense, pick one or the other… [but] as our population is changing, people are more comfortable adopting multi-racial identities. They don’t have to not make that choice.” This cultural shift actually has a more “unifying effect” than phrases like “majority-minority” that may lend itself to polarization and fear from white populations that they are becoming less demographically dominant.
Phrases like “majority-minority” misconstrue and force the data so that the white block appears smaller than it really is. In reality, those who had previously identified solely as white on past census questions, may now answer to be multi-racial.
This narrowing of the data to show those who solely identify as white reflects an antiquated understanding of racial identity. Lowe describes the idea of the “one-drop rule” that reflects the statement: “if you have any non-white blood in you, then you can’t be white.” When you expand the lens to include those who identify as multi-racial, and one of those races being white, Lowe describes that this “makes situation seem [less] stark than it is.”
This is not to say that the Tulsa population has not changed at all. However these changes are not as stark and straightforward as they appear, in the data and in recent headlines. Tulsa’s growing diversity cannot be captured in terms of white/non-white. It is seen in the fuller sense of deep, fluid racial identity. It is who we are, not who we are on paper.