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

A Brief Overview and Final Thoughts/The Census in the New Millennium

While the brief overview provided here cannot capture all the complexity that comes with the changes in the Census over the years, a few important shifts should be highlighted. First, from 1790-1950 enumerators or census takers chose people’s race on sight. It was only in 1960 that people could self-identify. Also, officials introduced the “Hispanic” ethnicity question beginning in 1970, which appeared separate from the “race” question, and this remains the federal standard. Since 2000, people have been asked to choose “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” and then are asked to select from other categories based on national origin (Mexican, Puerto Rican, etc.) before moving onto the following race question. Finally, it was only in the year 2000 that people were allowed to “mark one or more” box for race. Many families welcomed the option to select more than one racial box, especially for their children, and everyone has been presented with the option to identity with multiple ancestries in each census in the twenty-first century.

Arguably, more recent changes to how we count ourselves in the Census raise a number of questions around how we think about racial categories and personal identity. Many people take their ethnoracial identity seriously and groups want to be counted for purposes of political representation and the protection of their civil rights. This has been somewhat complicated by more people identifying with multiple ancestries in the twenty-first century and a growing number of people (or their parents) are checking more than one racial box. Some have hoped that these trends in the Census will lead to improved equality and an eventual post-racial era in the U.S., though it is clear that an increase in ethnoracial diversity will not solve the nation’s racial woes by itself.

Notwithstanding the changes that allow more personal freedom with how people fill out the Census, does asking people to choose one or more racial box simply reinforce the idea that races in fact do exist? Even as more people talk about race as a social construction (“races of people don’t really exist”), fewer of us question the term “multiracial.” It is easy for us in the U.S. to fall into the idea that races exist, to believe we belong to one (or more) of these monoracial groups, and to go along with the understanding that people from these races mix and produce new racial identities based on problematic binaries. This is true even for those of us who would abhor the current use of nineteenth-century racial terminology such as “Negro,” “Mulatto,” “Quadroon,” and “Octoroon.”

If anything, the everchanging and fluid racial categories in the U.S. Census capture a truth that we sometimes often miss: racial categories are imperfect because people made them up. These racial ideologies exist in our minds and operate in our world, but only as long as other people believe in them. Furthermore, our current racial thinking is founded in a history over 400-years-old, and is based on classifications that Euro-Americans imagined—just as European colonists had done—in order to support “white” supremacy and imperialism dating back to 1492.

Should we throw out all racial categories, get rid of the race question altogether on the U.S. Census, and claim that we “don’t see color”? Of course not. There are real disparities and systematic inequities based on race that operate in the United States. We need to address these issues as a nation if we are to reach the more equal and perfect union spoken of in our Constitution. We must count racial groups in the United States in order to make sure that civil rights legislation is upheld and to ensure that the citizenship rights of certain marginalized groups are protected, even while we know that racial categories are illogical. In other words, we need to rely on racial classifications in order to fight racism. Herein lies a great conundrum for us today and for future generations to solve.