Fitting Race in a Box

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In light of the Biden administration’s proposed changes to census forms, we wanted to understand how census categories for race and ethnicity have evolved over the last 230 years and how they have shaped American identities. As we dug into historical documents, we found the census often reflected the country’s changing attitudes.

I’m a graphics reporter who specializes in interactive data stories and I teamed up with Jennifer Medina, a national politics reporter, for this project. We sifted through copies of each decennial census from 1790 through 2020. Some were handwritten, some were yellowed, and, in later years, printed in color. We found that almost none of them categorized race in the exact same way. Each change indicated an incremental shift in how the nation perceived racial and ethnic identities at that time.

We talked to historians and demographers who explained the implications of these categories. The first census in 1790 separated free “white” people from other free people and enslaved people. In 1890, the census identified African Americans by the fraction of their African heritage: “Black,” “mulatto,” “quadroon” and “octoroon.” These terms stamped in old documents are a stark reminder of U.S. history.

Some of the changes reflected the country’s anxieties over immigration. For example, the government added the category “Chinese” in the 1870 census, after many immigrants from China had come as railroad workers and anxieties over immigration from China rose. “Mexican” was added in 1930 to capture the increase in immigrants after the Mexican Revolution. But many Mexican Americans fought for the category’s removal in the next census because they sought to be counted as white to gain citizenship.

With the year 1970 came a significant shift in the census, when people were allowed to choose their race, rather than having a census taker do so. The census is now a marker of self-identification instead of an outsider’s perception. That same year, a new question was added to assess the size of the Hispanic population.

Historically, some edits to census race boxes reflected changes in policy or public sentiment. As the nation’s laws on slavery shifted, the census began phasing out the counting of enslaved people and instead introduced new terms to define the Black population.

Other changes were borne out of a push and pull between how the government saw individuals and how they wanted to identify. For example, the antiquated term “Negro” was used in nine decennial censuses until 2010.

With 24 decennial censuses so far, race options have changed more than a dozen times, as new groups have been added and others deleted. We noted the historical implication for each change, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what this trove of historical documents show us.

We highlighted dozens of old census forms in our story, but hundreds more can be found on the website Internet Archive, a free digital public library, if you’re a history nerd like Jenny and I am.

The latest overhaul would allow more race and ethnicity options for people to describe themselves than the 2020 census did. One of the biggest changes would be to combine race and ethnicity into a single question. “Hispanic or Latino” would become one of seven race and/or ethnicity options, rather than in a separate origin question as it is now. Many Hispanic or Latino U.S. residents mark “some other race,” typically because they don’t see themselves as “Black” or “white.” Supporters say the changes reflect that Latinos have long been treated as a distinct racial group in the United States. But Afro-Latino scholars argue that the new method would mask important racial differences among Latinos.

A check box for “Middle Eastern or North African” would also be added. Community leaders have long backed this category, pointing to the need for better data for this growing population, especially around health care, education and political representation. The number of Middle Eastern and North African residents in the U.S. has grown to nearly four million in the last decade. If the proposal is approved, it would be the first time since the 1970s that a completely new racial or ethnic category was added to the census.

In some ways, the government is attempting to catch up with modern views of racial and ethnic identities, but there are complicated politics at work, and the proposed changes have provoked criticism among some scholars and activists.

If approved, the new forms would be adopted across all surveys in the country about health, education and the economy. The Biden administration’s Office of Management and Budget has asked for feedback on this plan, which it could implement and add to all federal forms as early as next summer and then be used for the 2030 census.

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