Race and the US Census

I’m a Sociology major, that means I just think about fun things like race, ethnicity, economic inequality, education, labor and immigration all day.

But seriously, I wanted to write this post because there are a lot of things I’ve learned about race in the past few years, that I previously never considered. I think people often don’t realize that race is so highly subjective and that its definition and meaning changes frequently, depending on the specific time period/social climate we’re living in. Race truly is a “social construct.” I’d guess that when people classify themselves into racial categories, they rarely realize that those classifications would have been drastically different decades earlier, and that they probably will be different in years to come.

photo credit: dosomething.org










I’ll highlight some historical examples from past US Census questions.

Racial Categories in the Census in 1790:
Number of free white males under 16 years old
Number of free White males 16 years or older
Number of free White females
Number of other free persons
Number of slaves

^That was the entire Census. So to be clear, in 1790, there was no “black”, “Hispanic”, “Asian” “Native American” etc. The five categories listed above, according to the US Government, were the only categories Americans were to be grouped in.

Racial Categories in the Census in 1820:
This is the first time in US census history that the word “colored” was included as a category.

Number of male slaves under the age of 14
Number of free male colored persons under the age of 14

Racial Categories in the Census in 1850:
The Census was very different this year. For the first time in Census history, all free persons were listed individually, as opposed to being represented by the head of the household. There were two separate questionnaires in this census, one for slaves and one for free persons. On the questionnaire for the free persons, there was a question about color, where if the individual was White, they would leave the column blank. If they were Black, they would mark a “B” and if they were Mulatto (one black parent and one white parent) they would write “M.”

Racial Categories on Census in 1870:
The color question from 1850 was expanded to now include “C” for ‘Chinese’, a category that represented all individuals from East Asia, and “I” for American Indians.

Racial Categories on Census in 1890:
Because of the increase in immigration, this was the first year that the census made distinctions between different East Asian races, like Japanese and Chinese. This was also the first year that the term “race” was put into the questionnaires. Individuals were asked to write either “White” “Black” “Mulatto” “Quadroon” “Octoroon” “Chinese” “Japanese” or “Indian.”

Racial Categories on Census in 1900:
“Mulatto” was removed as a racial category

Racial Categories on Census in 1910:
“Mulatto” was added back
“Other” was added as an option. It had a line for unlisted races to be written in.

Racial Categories on Census in 1920:
Spots for Hindu, Koreans and Filipinos were added.

Racial Categories on Census in 1930:
This was the first and last year in Census history that “Mexican” was listed as a racial category. (After 1930, “Mexicans” were counted with Whites.)
Beginning this year, “Mulatto” was removed and from now on, if an individual had white and black ancestry, no matter how much white, they had to list themselves as “Negro.” This was known as the one drop rule.

Racial Categories on Census in 1950
The census removed the options of Hindu and Korean

Racial Categories on Census in 1960
Changed “Indian” to “American Indian”. Also created new categories like “Hawaiian” , “Part-Hawaiian” “Aleut” and “Eskimo”.
It also removed the “Other” option.

Racial Categories on Census in 1970
Readded the “Other” option, and “Korean.”
One option read as: “Negro or Black”

^This choice, ‘Negro or Black’ represented the social dynamics of 1970. In parts of the country, some people were still very much using the term ‘Negro’ while in other parts of the country that was no longer politically correct. It’s clear the US census was trying to balance that tension as well.

Racial Categories on Census in 1980
Added categories like “Vietnamese” , “Indian (East) Guamanian” and “Samoan”

Racial Categories on Census in 1990
When individuals marked the “Other” race option and provided a a multiracial answer, the response was recorded to whatever race was written first.
Ex: if someone wrote, “Black-White” they would be recorded as Black in the government system. “White-Black” would be White.

(note how the one-drop rule is no longer used in the data collection). The Census data of 1990 showed that the number of interracial families was growing at a very fast rate. White American and Asian American families made up 45% of these interracial families at the time.

Racial Categories on Census in 2000:
This year was a huge year for the US census. For the first time ever people could identify themselves as “Two or more Races”
It listed an option as “Black or African American”
It listed “Asian” and said that term referred to people having origins in the Far East, Southeast Asian, or the Indian subcontinent including, among others, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.
It listed “Native Hawaiian” and “Pacific Islander” and defined that as people having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands. It includes people who indicate their race as Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro and Samoan.
The Census defined “Hispanic or Latino” as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”

The ‘Two or more races’ option was a significant reflection of the growing diversity and increasing intermarriage rates in America.

Racial Categories on Census in 2010:
Because of growing social campaigns, the census made an effort to distinguish the Hispanic ethnicity as not being a race. It included a sentence that said, “Hispanic origins are not races.”

These were only a few of the many differences and alterations made in each US census about what race “is” and who is “what.” I think that’s important to keep in mind.

Last thought: Here’s an interesting story about Halle Berry and her ex-boyfriend fighting over what race their 2 year old daughter, Nahla, will be identified as. Halle Berry is the daughter of a white mother and black father. Her ex-partner, Gabriel Aubry, is French-Canadian and White. Halle Berry said about Nahla, “I feel she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory.” But essentially, what it really comes down to is that in the future, Nahla can choose to identify herself however she chooses. There are no real race rules. She can identify as “White” or as “Black” or, thanks to the changes in the 2000 census, if she wants she can identify herself as both “White” and “Black.”


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