Race in the United States, as Reflected in the U.S. Census – A Glacial Rate of Change

Some say that demography is destiny. In the United States, race is destiny.

Clearly evidence of a racist social construct, “race” depends on who you are in the politics of government. From the time of the Constitutional Convention, the matter of race has been central to the decennial census practice. The census was put into place to assure proper representation and is today connected with the distribution of nearly $1 trillion in federal funding for myriad programs.

At the inception of the practice of taking the census, there was shameful, self-serving political debate about whether or not enslaved people would be counted as persons or property for the sake of levying taxes and determining representation. The compromise that stood for nearly a century was to count those who were enslaved as three-fifths of a person. Without a doubt, in the minds of these leaders all men are not created equal.

While enslaved persons were not counted as full persons for the sake of the census, indigenous persons were not counted at all. In fact, according to data collected by census-takers, the United States consisted of only white and black people for its first 100 years.

This was in part because census-takers determined race rather than allowing individuals to self-identify. In so doing, white people were recorded as homogeneous in their whiteness, while black people were recorded as free or enslaved. Additionally, black people could be recorded as mixed, with crude terms used to attempt to determine just how many drops of black blood a light-skinned black person might have. As late as 1930, the “one-drop rule” was included in instructions to ensure that interracial persons were determined to be black, “no matter how small the percentage of [black] blood.”

While the questions and language have slowly evolved since the first U.S. Census was taken in 1790, they always seem to lag behind the times, never fully reflecting the current reality and individual preferences of the people. It was not until 1960 that individuals could identify their own race, and it was not until the year 2000 – more than 200 years after the first census – that the questionnaire included a “multiple-race” option by which one could better reflect one’s identity by selecting more than one race. If the census is the marker, this America evolves century by century.

As part of this glacial evolution, for the 2020 U.S. Census, respondents are asked to identify not only their race but their “racial origins.” Thinking positively about this change, disaggregating the data collected on race and ethnicity theoretically has the potential to create a picture of the multiple diversities that make up this complex nation. Understanding the history of the political ends served by census questions, however, raises some understandable concerns.

censusThe question about “racial origins” (whatever that means) would seem easier on the surface to respond to for some groups than it is for others. For example, respondents who identify as “white” are given the following examples to choose from for racial origins: German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc. (Despite this seeming simplicity, however, one does wonder whether the homogeneity with which the census has treated “whiteness” to date, might still give people in this category pause in being asked to identify origins of which they may not be aware or ever given much thought to.)

Asian or Pacific Islanders are given specific checkboxes instead of being asked to write in choices from examples, unless selecting “Other Asian (Pakistani Cambodian, Hmong, etc.)” or “Other Pacific Islander (Tongan, Fijian, Marshallese; etc.).”

It starts getting more complicated with those who indicate that they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish.” While the first part of being able to further identify as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; or another origin {Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian, Guatemalan, Spaniard, Ecuadoran, etc.) is easy, then comes the question about race. The U.S. Census Bureau argues that Hispanic origin is not a race and that those of Hispanic origin must also be specific about their race. It’s expected that indignation and confusion will abound.

I empathize with those who affirm “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” and then face a question about race. If I affirm “Black or African American” for my identity and then see these sample choices for origin—African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somali, etc.—I am inclined to write “not applicable.” It makes no sense for me to indicate “African American” as my racial origin because I’ve already checked that box for race. Also, specifying the entire continent of Africa as an origin is not in alignment with others from the continent who can select from specific countries within the continent as their origin. For my racial origin, it makes sense to me that I would write in “Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama,” because, as I discovered in exploring census data from the 19th and 20th centuries, my family’s known history goes back no further than these three Southern states.

Twist, turn, bob, and weave as it may, America’s shameful history keeps showing up. This time it surfaces when there is an attempt by the federal government to tease out the diversity among people who live in the United States. What’s more, the ever-changing demographic questions for all the racial categories except “white” raise important questions related to data meant to be used as a comparator over time. Sadly, evolution from racism is, indeed, a slow process in this America.

 

 

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