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.

Changing Roles

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 opportunities.

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.

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