The United States is a racially and culturally pluralistic country – it’s made up of people from all sorts of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some of that diversity comes from people from outside the country wanting to move in to enjoy its opportunities and possibilities.
But that’s not the whole story, especially in the case of its Black residents, many of whom are descendants of people who were unjustly kidnapped and sold into slavery here.
It’s hard to understand all the different dimensions of diversity in the United States, but one easy way to start doing that is to look at percentages.
So what percentage of the US popular is black?
12.4% of the US population identifies as Black or African American alone, though that number increases to 14.2% when including people who identify as both Black and another race. This is shown in the 2020 census.
But the story is a lot more complicated than percentages, even though those percentages are useful. Throughout this piece, we’ll discuss the number of Black people in the US, what the population trends are for Black people, where Black residents are concentrated, the history of Black people in the country, as well as other information.
We’ll wrap up with a chart showcasing demographic numbers from the past x years.
How Many Black People Are in the United States?
As of the 2020 census, 41.1 million people self-identified as Black or African American alone, and that number jumps to 46.9 million people when including those who also self-identify with another race.
What Are the Population Trends for Black People in the US?
The Black presence in the US has also grown significantly in recent decades. Between 2000 and 2020, the total number of self-identifying Black or African-American people in the US has increased from 36.2 million to 46.9 million – a 29% increase.
Notably, that growth is much more significant than that of the general population within the states. That number increased from 281 million to 333 million between 2000 and 2020. That is only a 14% increase.
Population, Cultural, and Economic Statistics
Black Americans are an incredibly, delightfully diverse group of people, and there are several different fascinating cultural and population statistics to which we have access.
For example, the Black population is heavily religious. Only around a fifth (21%) of the community is not affiliated with any religious community. Two-thirds of Black adults are Protestants, while another 9% affiliate with Catholicism and other Christian denominations. Another 3% are members of non-Christian faiths.
According to a 2019 survey, almost 40% of households inhabited by Black people are led by married couples. Single women lead about 30%. Single men head another six percent. Less than 25% of the Black population live in households outside of a family structure.
Age structure is also quite interesting to explore. The population of Black people in the U.S. is both youthful and growing.
In 2019, the group’s median age was 32 years old – approximately six years lower than that of the general population, which is 38. That means that half of all Black people in the U.S. were less than 32 years old, while the other half were over 32. Similarly, half of all people in the U.S. were less than 38 years old, while the other half were older.
In 2019, around 30% of the Black community was under 20 years old, while only 11% were 65 years old or more. That’s especially significant given how the U.S. population is aging writ large, and placing great strain on our elder care systems.
That means that Black people, in general, will have an advantage here (even though a limited one) as the country progresses, but will also face unique challenges.
There is a great deal of discourse on the economic situation of Black Americans in the United States. Income inequality between Black and non-Black Americans is a significant problem, especially when considering inequality between Black and White Americans.
In 2019, the median Black household income was $44,000 per year. Over half of all Black households are taking in less than $50,000, while around 30% bring in between $50,000 and $100,000. Only approximately 20% have an annual income of over $100,000.
Compare this to the median household income for non-Black families: around $70,000. That’s even worse when you look at the level for white families — $77,007.
The Wealth Gap
Even though income inequality is a significant problem, the wealth gap is even more harmful. Wealth here refers to long-term assets – the sorts of things that give money and keep on giving it.
If you have $10,000 in cash, that’s wonderful, but it won’t help you out in the long term nearly as much as a collection of stocks worth $10,000 will.
In the United States, white people vastly surpass Black people in wealth, and many analysts find that to be a defining reason behind many of the income gaps seen today. In 2019, the median US Black household had $24,100 in wealth – around ten percent of the median wealth for white ones, which was $189,100. That’s a difference of $165,000!
This gap is likely due to the practices of segregation that dominated the 20th century. While white families could purchase housing, invest in whatever stocks they wanted, and access financial education to know how to do so, Black people were kept from much of that by segregation laws.
The worst thing about a wealth gap is that it’s self-perpetuating. Every dollar in that $165,000 difference is money that works to make more money for white families.
Where Do Most Black People in the United States Live?
Most Black people in the states live in the South – the region that extends from Texas and Oklahoma on the western side to the coasts on the eastern and southern sides and the Mason-Dixon line on the northern side.
That said, the highest concentration of the group exists in the Northeast – in the New York City metropolitan area, where 3.8 million Black Americans live.
The following two highest concentrations are in the South. The metropolitan areas of Atlanta and Washington, D.C. are far behind New York City’s with 2.2 million and 1.8 million Black residents, respectively.
What Is the History of Black People in the United States?
The history of Black people in the US is one of perseverance, oppression, and glorious success and accomplishment amidst a culture that has consistently worked towards their subjugation. Black suffering in this country has been directly born of the marginalization that Black people have experienced – but that only makes the group’s successes all the more admirable.
American Slavery – Africans Come to the New World
The story of Black American history starts with the slave trade. European “entrepreneurs” realized they could make a great deal of money by purchasing people from African kidnappers and slavers (or becoming kidnappers and slavers themselves) and then selling them off as property to customers in Europe and the newly-colonized New World.
The first Black person to set foot in the contemporary United States was not enslaved – Juan Garrido was a free African explorer who accompanied the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon on his search for the Fountain of Youth. Their 1503 expedition led them to present-day Florida.
Several other African people came to the states as slaves to explorers throughout the rest of the 16th century, including one group who halted their whole expedition by revolting. The first African slaves to set foot in the contemporary states as a part of a colony (as opposed to a purely exploratory mission) were part of a group joining the decade-old Jamestown settlement in 1619.
That mission is often regarded as the birthplace of US slavery.
The Distinctive Cruelty of US Slavery
It was terrible for anyone to be kidnapped and sold into slavery, but those who were sold to buyers in the United States were distinctly unlucky. The country was known for its form of chattel slavery. When you bought a slave, you didn’t just purchase that person and their labor – you also bought all their descendants.
This practice created a horrific system where owners frequently tore apart families without a second thougth and consistently raped Black women to “breed” more slaves.
Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse was common on US plantations. People were typically valued exclusively for how much they were able to produce. The tyranny of the slave drivers was so significant that traditional religious and cultural practices were banned.
Even when Africans converted to Christianity, they were only allowed to experience a wholly sanitized version of the faith that took out any calls for the freeing of slaves and liberation of the oppressed.
Black Excellence Despite Slavery
No matter how badly plantation owners wanted to crush the spirits of the Black population into a purely laboring dust, they could never extinguish their excellence. Throughout the evils of slavery, Black people rose up and created incredible things.
Take Phyllis Wheatley, for example. She was the first African-American to publish a book of poetry – and she did that back in 1767. Wheatley was a devout Christian, and her faith informed much of her writing, which impressed audiences from England to the United States.
Sojourner Truth is another incredible manifestation of this principle. She was a preacher and an early civil rights activist, fighting with relentless vigor for the rights of Black people, women, and Black women. She gained public attention first in 1828 when she sued a white man (her former so-called owner) to get her son back from him.
She had been previously emancipated from the man, but he later tried to illegally sell her son to a different buyer (under principles of chattel slavery). But Sojourner Truth would not budge, and she sued him.
Truth won the lawsuit, becoming the first Black woman to successfully sue a white person. She went on to work as a housekeeper, then felt a calling from the Spirit of God to preach the abolition of slavery. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth that day and went on to become a founding member of a tradition of Black American religious activism towards justice.
By the end of her life, she was likely best recognized for her speech “Ain’t I A Woman?”, an emotional plea to the listener to see her as she was – a person, and a woman, like every other woman.
The Civil War: Slaves are Set Free
The rumblings of abolishing slavery have been around in the US as long as there have been slaves here. But those rumblings intensified along with the founding of the country, which was allegedly premised on the equality of all humanity. They grew louder and louder during the 19th century until they finally erupted in the Civil War of 1861-1865.
The southern region of the US relied heavily on the enslavement of African-Americans for its economy at the time, and the growing prominence of the abolition movement (especially in the north of the country) made southern politicians quite nervous.
When Abraham Lincoln, a noted abolitionist, was elected president, prominent figures like Jefferson Davis felt the need to secede from the United States to protect slavery.
Lincoln would not accept this fate, however, and fought hard to keep the South within the Union. His war effort was greatly influenced by principles of abolition, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. In that proclamation, all slaves held in the South were freed (though, notably, slaves still held in the North were not).
This made the Union forces that invaded the South into a liberation force – wherever they encountered slaves, they were supposed to free them. Often, these African-Americans joined forces with the army and formed regiments, freeing even more slaves.
The Union army also had the help of other Black icons from the pre-war era like Harriet Tubman, who served as a spy.
Reconstruction and Jim Crow
The Union won that war, and slavery ended up being abolished in the United States. But the South was deeply bitter about the loss and full of deeply racist people who didn’t want to relinquish the control they had over the Black population.
Many people in the US wanted to help the newly free Black community come into their independence healthily and welcome them wholeheartedly into participating in American life. Most of these people were themselves Black – white activists were typically still tinged with a great deal of racism.
Nonetheless, the effort to create a good life for African-Americans (as well as the effort to rebuild the destroyed South) was called reconstruction. And it started with success, but then something terrible happened: Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. This left his vice president Andrew Johnson, who was much more sympathetic to the South, in charge of the reconstruction process.
Johnson messed things up, but the process looked a bit more hopeful under his successor, the former Union general Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had two successful terms in office, but was only able to get a good reconstructive process started – he was unable to solidify things.
When it came time for the next president to be elected, the Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes cut a deal with the southern-sympathetic Democrats. If the Democrats allowed Hayes to win in an election dispute, Hayes would allow them to handle reconstruction however they wanted to do so.
The deal was struck, and soon laws trying to push Black people back down popped up all over the southern US. African-Americans would have to use separate water fountains, separate educational facilities, separate restaurants, and on and on.
On top of that, white people all over the country were drenched in anti-Black racism, excluding African-Americans from a great deal of white public life. This led to a justice system prejudiced against Black communities and much more evil.
These Jim Crow laws and attitudes created much of the deeply harmful inequalities that are regularly witnessed within the US today.
The Civil Rights Movement
Black people in the US would not be satisfied with this state of affairs for long. Leaders arose who were passionate about tearing down Jim Crow laws and creating a society that was just for Black people.
Legendary figures like Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Bayard Rustin, and others grew in prominence and influence as the second half of the 20th century rolled around. They worked by bolstering Black communities, engaging in non-violent protest, and taking on occasional targeted violence.
After decades of toil, their work bore fruit with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed race-based discrimination of all kinds, effectively overruling most Jim Crow laws. There were several other laws and judicial decisions involved in this time as well, all of which grew out of the soil watered by the blood, sweat, and tears of civil rights activists.
Today, civil rights struggles persist in questions of criminal justice, police violence, and wealth inequality.
How do Black People in the US Relate to Africa?
Even though evolutionary scientists have discovered that it is very likely that all humanity comes from Africa, Black people in the US have a unique relationship with the continent.
African-Americans, African immigrants, and the children of African immigrants all have different and unique connections to Africa that are worth recognizing and understanding.
The Connection of African Americans
African-Americans, descendants of those who were kidnapped and sold into slavery long ago, tend to have a relationship with the continent that is distant but yearning. Most African-Americans can’t trace their lineage back to a specific place or community on the continent, which is deeply painful for many.
So the connection with the homeland here is forced to be abstract – it’s limited to a broad understanding of Africa as such, rather than a particular place with particular characteristics. That said, African-American scholars have traced how the cultural heritage of the continent never left those who were unjustly enslaved.
One example of this is the emphasis on drumming that is found both within African cultures all over the continent as well as in much of the musical contributions of African-Americans like jazz, rock n’ roll, and R&B. Indeed, drums were so significant in African cultures that they were banned on most US slave plantations in the 18th century.
The Connection of African Immigrants
African immigrants have a very different relationship with the continent. It’s much less common for them to think of Africa as a whole – after all, they have had some experience living there and understanding the political and cultural complexities that exist at local and state levels. Quite often, the African diaspora in the US feels a strong tie to their specific community of origin.
The Economic Connection
Many African immigrants also use a large portion of their income to send money back to their relatives in Africa. These payments are called remittances, and they often make up a sizable portion of the economies of African countries. In Senegal, for example, 13% of their GDP comes from the remittance payments of emigrants.
The Political Connection
This form of the diaspora is also often still politically engaged in their home community. In many cases, they try to do what they can to lobby the US government and other Americans to help in some way.
In many other cases, the political tensions occurring in their communities of origin can impact their communities in the US. This is especially true in contexts with a lot of ethnic tension – since people in the diaspora tend to start self-identifying more with their country of origin than their ethnic community of origin, they create country-based communities that lack such tensions.
The recent internal conflict between the Ethiopian government and the leaders of the Tigrayan ethnic province in Ethiopia is a perfect example of this process.
Tensions between the Tigrayan people (who have been historically dominant in Ethiopian politics), the Amhara people (who have often vied for power with the Tigrayans), and the many other ethnic groups in the country (who have often been marginalized by both Tigrayans and Amharas) have been significant for years now.
These tensions came to a boiling point with the recent civil war and invasion of the Tigray province of Ethiopia on the part of the Ethiopian government (led by Abiy Ahmed, who is from a different ethnic group, the Oromo). Atrocities have been committed on all sides, but the Ethiopian government has been accused of the most significant ones.
In the US, the Ethiopian diaspora has developed several communities, especially religious ones built around the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The tensions from the Ethiopian homeland have become quite significant in many such churches, and have even led to lawsuits like the one against the Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Columbus, Ohio.
The original trustees of the church have accused the current clergy leadership of changing the language of the service from the country’s national language (Amharic, which is also the language of the Amhara people) to Tigrinya, which is spoken in the Tigray region. In the trustees’ understanding, this constitutes taking sides in the conflict.
According to the clergy, they have not changed the language of the service. Instead, Tigrinya has been added as a language so they can better serve the church population.
Regardless of what happens in that lawsuit, it’s an excellent case study of how African immigrants relate to their home continent.
The Connection of the Descendants of African Immigrants
The children of African immigrants have an even more intriguing relationship with Africa. They share in the experiences of both African immigrants and African-Americans.
They grow up with their primary culture being in the United States and often connect with African-American communities (depending on where they grow up). And though they have access to an understanding of their homeland that African-Americans lack, they are nonetheless distant from that homeland due to having grown up in the United States.
These diasporal descendants tend to be less economically and politically involved in their ancestral communities, though this shifts if they maintain significant relationships with extended family. For example, if a person has a deep relationship with her grandfather or cousins in Africa, she might send money back to them or lobby for their political liberation.
Even if they lack such connections, these descendants often take inspiration from their ancestral communities to pursue careers or activism that supports the community writ large.
What Percentage of the US Population Is Black? Final Thoughts
So there you have it, now you know what percentage of the US population is black. I hope you’ve found the answers you’ve been looking for.