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The drop in Boston’s Black population may be an illusion

A common method of interpreting census data has a big flaw.

Children play tug-of-war at an event celebrating the first anniversary of a group called Boston While Black.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The release of 2020 Census data a few months ago was a source of deep concern in Boston.

A city with a troubling history on race had apparently lost 8,809 Black residents over the course of a decade, even as the overall population was rising.

Maybe the city’s culture hadn’t shifted as much as we’d like to believe. Maybe the forces of gentrification had grown even more powerful than we’d imagined. “This is what people at a community level have been saying for years,” one professor told the Globe, “that the neighborhood is changing, that Black people are being moved out of their community.”


But a close look at the data suggests that we may have gotten the numbers undergirding this story wrong — that Boston’s Black population may, in fact, have grown over the last decade.

The problem lies in both how the data is collected and how it’s commonly reported. The census asks two separate questions, one on Hispanic or Latino ethnicity and another on race. And many researchers and reporters, in a bid for simplicity, wind up putting people in one bucket or the other. Afro-Latinos, for instance, are considered Latino alone. Researchers also tend to count mixed-race people who are partly Black or African American as “mixed race” alone. Both of these counting conventions artificially depress Black population totals.

The categories can feel dry, so it helps to use concrete examples. Take former President Barack Obama. We think of him as our nation’s first Black president, but because his mother was white (and assuming he selected both Black and white when filling out the census form), the conventional approach doesn’t count him toward our nation’s Black population total.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell could have been Boston’s first elected Black mayor. But since she is married to a white man, she is the only person in her immediate family counted toward the city’s Black population, even though her two children are also Black (and white). Put more starkly, this “single race alone” approach to measuring diversity — a person is either Black, white, Latino, or “mixed race” — treats Campbell’s Black lineage in Boston as having ended, rather than continuing through her children.


This reporting depresses other race totals too. Since she’s in an interracial marriage, Boston’s first Asian American mayor, Michelle Wu, would appear to have no Asian American children under this approach. But the impact of this form of categorization is most noticeable for Boston’s Black population.

The history, pride, diversity, and size of Boston’s Black communities get sold short when we measure race the traditional way. But if we use a more inclusive approach, one that simply counts all people who select Black on the census — in one form or another — it adds 43,000 people to the commonly reported figure for the city’s Black population in 2020.

And if we apply that same inclusive approach to both the 2010 and 2020 census data, we find the Black population of Boston increased by 8,410 people, or about 5 percent, over the past decade.

Since data drives narratives, there are many downsides to the typical reporting approach. Think of how a story on displacement pressures in historically Black neighborhoods like Roxbury and Mattapan changes if we perceive the Black population as rising rather than falling.


Changing demographics make these judgment calls more consequential now than they were a generation ago. Today, fully one-third of Black Bostonians are foreign born. Many are Afro-Latino. They are racially Black like longer-standing African American residents of Boston, but they came here by way of nations colonized by the Spanish empire, like the Dominican Republic. So even though many Afro-Latino residents think of themselves as Black (having selected the race on their census forms), the traditional reporting approach ignores their Black identity and includes them only in Latino totals.

To be clear, there are times when we may want to home in on the experience of African Americans alone. But Afro-Latinos share a history of enslavement and oppression with African Americans, so for most aggregate analyses it makes more sense to put the groups together.

These reporting differences have obvious policy implications, as census data is an input for the drawing of majority-minority electoral districts, among other things. But they surface larger cultural questions as well. Traditional reporting contributes, for instance, to the use of simple binaries like white/non-white or white people/people of color. These shorthand constructs can sometimes be useful, especially since versions of the pernicious “one-drop” rule — the racist claim that one drop of Black blood marks someone as inferior — persist to this day. But changing demographic patterns blur these lines further with every passing year.

Let’s go back to another narrative from the 2020 Census results. Boston is already considered a “majority-minority” city, because the traditional reporting approach shows that a majority of residents (55.4 percent) are something other than single-race, non-Latino white. But in reality, 53.9 percent of residents selected the white box on the 2020 Census. It’s just that some are also Latino or selected an additional race. In a way, Boston is both majority non-white and majority white at the same time.


Racial identities are complex and ever-changing — race itself is a social construct rooted in oppression — and so we shouldn’t expect people (and families) to fit neatly into discrete boxes.

Luc Schuster is senior director of Boston Indicators, the research center at the Boston Foundation. This analysis flows from Boston Indicators’ recent report “Multiracial in Greater Boston: The Leading Edge of Demographic Change.”