A Brief History of The Census and Race in the United States

The “White”/Non-“White” Racial Binary

Since its earliest days, the United States has established a racial system largely based on a “white”/non-“white” binary. Those of predominately European ancestry have been considered “white,” while those who have ancestry from Indigenous America, Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and other islands have generally been considered non-“white.” Since 1492, Europeans and Euro-Americans have historically classified these “people of color” by a variety of monoracial categories and denied these groups privileges and civil rights that came with whiteness. Generally speaking, these ideas dominated racial thinking in the United States since its founding in 1776 and are encapsulated in the first census count of the U.S. population in 1790.

Race is an ever-present specter that influences our formal politics, personal identity, and social treatment in United States. How did the U.S. come to a place where racial classifications hold so much importance in our everyday lives and permeate our institutional structures? The answers to this question are complex and nuanced, yet historically we must go back before census takers enumerated “Free Whites,” “Slaves,” and “All Other Free Persons” for the first U.S. Census in 1790. Racial understandings in the U.S. can be traced back to the 13 British colonies of North America, dating back to 1607, when the English founded the Jamestown fort in Tsenacommacah—lands occupied by the Powhatan and other confederated tribes. A dozen years later, in 1619, the English recorded that over 20 “Negroes” entered onto those lands, which the English had since renamed Virginia.

Race was made in Virginia and in its neighboring sister colony Maryland, as well as in Massachusetts, Barbados, Jamaica, and other English provinces in both the Caribbean and North America. Over the first decades of the seventeenth century, the English colonies in America were protoracial societies, meaning people primarily identified with and were identified by their religion and other cultural markers moreso than race. However, over generations, English racial ideologies gained weight and social significance as colonial authorities enshrined racial categorizations in law in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Both European immigrants and those born in the colonies helped establish monoracial classifications that defined “Negroes,” “Whites,” “Indians,” and certain mixed groups, such as “Mulattoes” and “Mustees”—a shortened version of the Spanish “mestizo.”