How the U.S. Census Defines Race

The history of America’s racial identity, as told by 225 years of population data

Census Race Form
David Brabyn/Corbis

What does America look like? To find out, historians often turn to data from the U.S. Census, which has collected information on population and race since 1790. But the census doesn't just study race in America—the terminology used in census forms can also define it. A new interactive graphic released by the Census Bureau shows how racial categorizations have changed over time.

There's not much continuity to the labels for people of color, write Laris Karklis and Emily Badger for The Washington Post. Their piece, which offers a few alternative graphics using census race categories, shows just how often the government defines and redefines racial identities. As the Census Bureau prepares for the 2020 count, here are a few key details from the past 225 years:

Freedom and Slavery 

From the beginning, the census reflected early American realities of slavery. The very first census, which was conducted in 1790, was ordered to distinguish "free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, from all others; distinguishing also the sexes and colours of free persons, and the free males of sixteen years and upwards from those under that age." As a result, census takers counted free whites, "all other free persons," and slaves. No distinction was made between differing ethnicities, but "slave" almost always meant enslaved Africans.

Anxiety About Mixed-Race Identities

In 1850, the census introduced the terms "black" and "mulatto." Though this reflects a growing number of multiracial Americans, it also shows the dominant stereotypes of the era. Brown University professors David I. Kertzer and Dominique Arel write that the appearance of the term "mulatto" was due to lobbying by so-called "racial scientists."

The Rise of Asian Immigration

Changes to census categories also reflect a wave of Asian immigration that began in the mid-19th century. In 1850, the Chinese population in America was only 4,000, but by 1860, it had ballooned to nearly 35,000. Asians immigrants flocked to the U.S. to work on railroads, in mines and in Western cities. By 1860, "Chinese" was a category within the census, and "Japanese, Filipino, Hindu and Korean" soon followed.

Mexican or White? 

It took decades for the census to reflect Hispanic and Latino cultures. One of the most startling inconsistencies within census race categories is the word "Mexican," which was introduced in 1930, eliminated in 1940 and did not appear again until 1970. Mexican-Americans, Hispanics and Latinos were officially considered "white" until the change was made, which coincided with the Chicano civil rights movement.

Evolving Categories, Evolving Times

The changes reflect growing awareness of racial and ethnic diversity, but also show the ways in which government endorses the language of race. In 1930, "Black" was changed to "Negro" on census forms. Forty years later, during a period of fierce public debate, the Census Bureau changed the category to "Negro or Black." In 2000, the census began listing "Black, African-American or Negro" instead—and for the first time, people could report more than one race.

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