What does the census
tell us about race?
It was not an accident that in the census of
1930, persons of Mexican birth or ancestry were classified as
'nonwhite'. This was a policy decision, not a mistake of enumeration.
- census historian Hyman Alterman
From the beginning, the census was not just about counting. It
was tied to important political questions - how much tax each
state would owe, how many Congressional representatives they would
have - and race played a key role in answering these questions.
The first official census took place in 1790, the same year that
Congress passed the first Naturalization Act (restricting the
right of adopted citizenship to "free white" persons only).
The census has always reflected and helped shape social divisions.
Until 1850, only heads of households were counted. Slaves were
listed on the census as numbers, not names, and Indians were not
counted at all until the late 1800s. Between 1850 and 1870, 6.5
million Europeans entered as immigrants. During that same time,
60,000 Chinese entered. Despite the greater number of Europeans
and the popular belief that Italians, Irish, Germans, English
and Jews belonged to different races, only the Chinese were categorized
separately, beginning in 1870, followed by other Asian groups
in the early 1900s. Mixed race categories for blacks were also
recorded during this time.
Why does it matter?
Historically, being counted as a separate group was not a matter
of choice or preference, but a way to target that group for discrimination
or restrictions. Laws regulating Native Americans, African Americans,
and Asians were passed around the time that certain census categories
were introduced: for example, the 1883 Dawes Act, Jim Crow segregation
laws, and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, along with many other
local and state laws restricting housing, marriage and jobs.
Census classification also helped fuel racist science. At the
turn of the century, census "enumerators" were instructed to be
especially careful when counting Native Americans and blacks of
mixed ancestry, because "important scientific results" depended
on the result. Racial classification, however, was determined
in a very unscientific way - according to the opinion of the enumerator,
who based his conclusion on appearance alone. (Self-identification
was not allowed until 1970.) Eugenicists, who believed in selective
breeding and preserving the purity of the white race, used census
results to lobby for social policies restricting groups' rights.
Sometimes the census played a very direct role in social policy.
The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which limited immigration from Europe
and Asia, was tied directly to the census numbers of 1890. The
Census Bureau also contributed directly to the internment of Japanese
Americans beginning in 1941, by providing a special hand tabulation
of names and addresses for Japanese living on the West Coast.
Since the civil rights movement, the Census has reversed its
role - rather than counting in order to exclude, census numbers
help us measure who is being excluded and what we are doing about
it. This is because the laws have changed, since passage of the
1964 Civil Rights Act and other laws to address inequality. In
fact, Directive 15, issued in 1977, which outlines the federal
government's definitions of race, was created specifically to
help determine whether Hispanic students were being denied educational
Since the 1960s, individuals have also become more involved in
defining how they are categorized. Not only is self-identification
the new norm, but groups now lobby to be categorized in specific
ways. Although the census has always been a political tool, it
is now more explicit because groups recognize its power. In 1980,
the first pan-ethnic umbrella categories, Asian Pacific Islander
and American Native, were introduced. Although these lumped together
people from different countries who speak different languages,
the categories were created to reflect a common experience of
discrimination here in the U.S. In 1997, the Asian Pacific Islander
umbrella category was split in two - "Asian" and "Native Hawaiian
and other Pacific Islander" - in order to address the different
needs and concerns of the members of these groups.
In recent years, there has also been a move to eliminate racial
classification altogether and to allow individuals to acknowledge
more than one race. Traditional civil rights groups have resisted
this, because they fear a loss of support for programs that track
discrimination and help remedy inequality.
The role of the census will always reflect and define not just
how we view ourselves, but where we place our political priorities.
Jean Cheng is the series co-producer for RACE - The Power
of an Illusion and on the staff of California Newsreel.