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Explainer · October 2023

Race and Diversity in the Golden State

Hans Johnson, Eric McGhee, Carolyn Subramaniam, and Vicki Hsieh

Supported with funding from the California Endowment and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation

California’s diversity is one of the state’s greatest assets. What are the numbers behind it?

The promise of economic opportunity has long attracted people from all over the US and the world to California, resulting in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse states in the nation. However, disparate outcomes persist across and within racial groups. Preserving the California Dream will require policy responses that create a brighter future for all Californians.

Explore our infographic for a visual overview of this explainer.

photo - Group of people walking down a street next to tall buildings

California is one of the nation’s most racially diverse states

No racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority of California’s population, a status shared by only five other states. Compared to the nation as a whole, California has a significantly smaller proportion of white residents, a somewhat smaller share of Black residents, and much larger percentages of Latinos and Asians/Pacific Islanders. In both California and the US, 5 percent of residents are multiracial or other, and fewer than 1 percent are Native American or Alaska Natives (0.2% California; 0.5% US).

Importantly, these broad categories mask the full diversity of the state. For example, California is home to sizable immigrant communities (at least 10,000 people) from over 60 countries.

California’s racial diversity has shifted over time

The racial and ethnic composition of California’s population has shifted over time. From 2000 to 2020, the number of white residents fell by over 2 million, while the number of Latinos grew by 4.6 million, the number of Asians and Pacific Islanders rose by 2.3 million, and the number of multiracial and other residents grew by more than 700,000. Shifts in these broad categories can be influenced by not only changing demographics but also changes in the census questionnaire.

Notably, Latinos now make up a majority (52%) of California children. Californians who identify as multiracial or other are also much more prevalent among children (8%) than among residents overall (5%).

More than a quarter of Californians are immigrants

California is home to 10.5 million immigrants—23 percent of the national total. Twenty-seven percent of Californians are foreign born, the highest percentage of any state.

California has immigrants from dozens of nations; the leading countries of origin are Mexico (3.9 million), the Philippines (825,200), China (768,400), India (556,500), and Vietnam (502,600). Among immigrants who arrived between 2012 and 2021, more than half (51%) were born in Asia, while 34 percent were born in Latin America. Annual inflows of immigrants have dropped in recent years, a contributing factor to the state’s population decline, but early indications suggest an uptick in 2022.

Immigrants bring varied skills and experiences

Recent immigrants to California are among the most educated residents in the state. A majority (52%) of working-age immigrants (ages 25–64) arriving over the past ten years have a bachelor’s or graduate degree, compared to just 29 percent of immigrants arriving earlier and 41 percent of US-born Californians. In addition, many California college students are foreign born; immigrants make up 16 percent of undergraduate and 26 percent of graduate and professional school students. This is higher than any other state in the country.

While more than two-thirds (70%) of California immigrants report speaking English very well or well, most immigrants speak a language other than English at home—most commonly Spanish (45%) and Chinese (9%), including Mandarin and Cantonese. California’s voter guide is required to be translated into 40 languages, a testament to linguistic diversity in the state.

Racial diversity is growing in the legislature

More people of color have won California legislative and congressional office over time, bringing political representation closer to the demographics of the state. Latino and Asian candidates have made especially significant gains. For example, out of the 120 state legislators, 37 are Latino (up from 7 in 1990). There were no Asian or Pacific Islander legislators in 1990; now there are 14. Black elected officials have also gained ground. Overall, the proportion of nonwhite elected officials in the legislature has risen from 13 to 53 percent since 1990.

But voters don’t fully represent California’s population

White Californians are overrepresented at the ballot box, making up about half (52%) of likely voters despite comprising 39 percent of California adults. Asians and especially Latinos are underrepresented in the electorate. Latinos make up 36 percent of all adults but 25 percent of likely voters. Notably, almost six in ten of those who are not registered to vote—which includes both eligible citizens and noncitizens who are not eligible to vote—identify as Latino. Educational attainment, income, and age are also correlated with voter registration.

Racial disparities in socioeconomic outcomes are large

Disparities in key measures of socioeconomic well-being remain stark. For example, incomes are significantly higher among Asians/Pacific Islanders and white Californians than among Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans. Homeownership and college completion follow similar patterns.

Importantly, these numbers mask considerable variation within each group. For example, within the Asian and Pacific Islander community, Asian Indians have by far the highest incomes ($170,000), while Hmongs ($74,000) have the lowest. Meanwhile, among Latinos, incomes tend to be higher among those born in the US ($74,000 vs. $59,000 for immigrant Latinos). In contrast, among African Americans, immigrants tend to be better off ($74,000 vs. $56,000 US-born African Americans). For Native Americans, those who identify as Native in combination with another race tend to have higher incomes ($72,000 vs. $57,000 for those who identify as Native American alone).

Diversity is increasing among college graduates

The good news is that most racial and ethnic groups have seen progress on important socioeconomic measures, including college completion. Among California-resident students at the University of California (UC), the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Latino students almost doubled from 2011–12 to 2021–22 and the number awarded to Black students increased by over 50 percent (compared to a decline of 6% for other groups). At California State University (CSU), the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Latino students increased 2.5 times over the same period and by 17 percent among Black students (compared to a 4% increase for other students).

Community colleges and California State University are especially critical access points to higher education for underrepresented students. Enrollment at these institutions reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of California’s high school graduates. In contrast, Asian students are overrepresented at UC, and white students are overrepresented at private nonprofit colleges.

A new generation of Californians will shape the state’s future

Younger Californians are demographically distinct from older Californians. Children are much more likely to be Latino; identifying as multiracial is also increasingly common. Almost half (46%) of California children have at least one immigrant parent, and about 40 percent of California public school students speak a language other than English at home.

Several policy issues will determine younger Californians’ access to a brighter future. College completion and equitable access to higher education will play a critical role in forming the skillset of California’s future workforce. A four-year degree is also linked to higher incomes, better jobs, and greater economic mobility. Housing is another area of concern; a recent PPIC survey found that six in ten adults are very concerned that the cost of housing will prevent younger generations from buying a home in their part of California. Lastly, additional focus on diversifying the electorate is necessary to ensure that those who turn out to vote are more representative of the state’s diversity.


Immigrants in California Population