October 27, 2017

By David Morse - New America Dimensions

While scientists have argued over the question of whether or not race is a real or artificial concept, complicating the issue, and perhaps lending credence to the idea that race is a societal construct, is that the federal government, in the form of the U.S. Census, has continually changed its system of racial categorization.  As Kenneth Pruitt, a political scientist and former director of the census, puts it, “America has statistical races … They have been deliberately constructed and reconstructed by the government.  They are tools of government, with political purposes and policy consequences – more so even than the biological races of the 19th century or the socially constructed races from 20st century anthropology or what are termed identity races in our current times.”   

Despite all scientists have learned in the field of genomics, it is impossible to deny the arbitrariness of racial classifications as they are – and have been used – in the United States.  Definitions of race have varied by state and region, changing over time and in response to politics.  In Virginia, for example, during the 1800s, a “white” person was anyone who was less than a quarter black.  However, in order to prevent intermarriage, laws became more restrictive, and by 1924, legislators prohibited anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood” from marrying a white person.  

Complicating the matter is that the Census Bureau has vacillated in terms of how it classifies race, and the terminologies used have changed over time.  For example, mulattoes were a racial category in the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1890, 1910, and 1920 censuses.  Mexicans were considered a race in 1930, but not before or after that.  Additionally, before 1980, a person’s race was determined by the census interviewer; since that time, people have chosen their own race from a list of categories.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the way people see themselves and the way they are seen by census takers, have not always been the same.   Still, throughout our history, Americans have been obsessed with the idea of racial classification.  

Our national obsession is evident when one looks at the U.S. Constitution, although it never mentions the terms “race” or “color.”  According to Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, the population was to be counted every ten years, thereby instituting the decennial census.  The same paragraph states:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.”

Despite the Constitution’s haziness, it clearly made its point.  It was understood by all that indentured servants, most of whom were white, were to be counted as free persons and “three fifths of all other Persons” referred to African slaves.  In other words, whites counted.  Indians counted, assuming they paid their taxes.  Slaves were considered to be a mixture of persons and property, most aptly put by James Madison in the Federalist papers:  “The federal Constitution therefore, decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixt character of persons and property. This is in fact their true character.”   

By the time of the first census in 1790, the Constitution’s race-based intent was clarified, and the census categories of “free white” males and females, free colored (including Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks), and “slaves” were called out.  This system remained in place until 1840, with only the nomenclature of non-white free persons changing over the decades.

In the decades following the Civil War, the race question evolved in ways that mirrored political concerns of the time, particularly immigration. The 1860 census, reflecting the growing obsession with immigrant railroad workers, counted Chinese in California, adding Japanese to the state’s enumeration in 1870 – both were added in 1890 to the national census.  By that year, concerns about miscegenation, or race mixing, had reached a crescendo, fueled by the racial science of the day and concerns about the racial purity of the nation.  The census that year created the categories of Black (three-quarters or more black), Mulatto (three-eighths to five-eighths black), Quadroons (a quarter black), and Octoroons (one-eighth or any trace of black “blood).  

Over the next 50 years, the government added and deleted racial categories. There were 10 in 1920, including Filipinos, Koreans, and “Hindus”.  The 1930 census institutionalized the one-drop rule for Blacks by instructing census takers that: “A person of mixed White and Negro blood was to be returned as Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood; someone part Indian and part Negro also was to be listed as Negro, unless the Indian blood predominated.”

With the 1960 census, the categories began to resemble those used today:  Aleut, American Indian or Eskimo; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; Negros; Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian, and White.   Additionally, it marked the first census that allowed the self-reporting of race.  While intended as a methodological change to correct undercounts of minority populations, allowing individuals to self-identify meant that one’s own cultural affiliation and identity came to trump ascribed racial identification, since a person’s race had previously been determined by census takers, as best they could.  

In 1970, under pressure from Latino groups, President Nixon ordered that the census include a question about Hispanic ethnicity.  However, because millions of census forms had already been printed, the Census Bureau only included it on the long form, asking the five percent who received the more detailed questionnaire to choose whether their “origin or descent” was Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, or “other Spanish.”    

Still, as late as the early 1970s, there was little or no standardization in the racial classifications used by various government agencies. Some agencies reported data for whites and non-whites; others kept records for whites, blacks, and others; a few agencies such as the Census Bureau used a larger set of categories. To deal with this lack of consistency, in 1974, the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) took on the task of creating a standard set of racial categories for federal administration.  In June, an ad hoc committee was established to coordinate the development of a standard taxonomy and set of definitions for racial and ethnic groups of interest to the federal government, namely, those groups which historically were the subjects of racial oppression and who were the objects of special protections under a host of federal policies and programs.  

In 1975, the committee recommended that federal agencies collect data for five groups: American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asians and Pacific Islanders, Non-Hispanic Blacks, Non-Hispanic Whites, and Hispanics. In May 1977, the OMB issued OMB Directive No. 15, instituting the five categories recommended by the committee.  Despite a disclaimer that "These classifications should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature,”  Directive No. 15 mandated that all federal agencies, contractors, and grantees use these categories any time that data concerning race was collected.  In the words of sociologist C. Matthew Snipp, “The impact of Directive No. 15 cannot be underestimated. In many respects, this standard established an official racial cosmology for the United States that permeated every level of government, many if not most large corporations, and many other institutions such as schools and nonprofit organizations.”

The 1980 census was the first to ask all people whether they were of “Spanish/Hispanic origin or descent;” if they responded affirmatively, they were instructed to check off one of four boxes – “Mexican,” “Cuban,” “Puerto Rican,” or “other Hispanic (specify).”   By doing so, the Census Bureau solidified the idea of Hispanics as an “ethnicity” rather than a race, since the race question was treated separately.

The 2000 census marked another turning point in census history.  For the first time, the questions allowed people to check more than one box when asked their race, representing a victory for many multiracial Americans.    In 1993, Congress had begun to investigate a category for people of mixed race, but they were met by staunch opposition by the civil rights community, which argued that this would dilute minority numbers, setting back the civil rights movement by years.   Arthur Fletcher, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, testified that he could “see a whole host of light-skinned black Americans running for the door the minute they have another choice.”     In its testimony, the NAACP argued that the “creation of a multiracial classification might disaggregate the apparent numbers of members of discrete minority groups, diluting benefits to which they are entitled as a protected class under civil rights laws and under the Constitution itself.” The crux of their argument was that the basic purpose of the race classification is “the enforcement of civil rights laws” and not “to provide vehicles for self-identification.”   

However, for many, the issue indeed was identity affirmation, not social justice.  Susan Graham, the white mother of a biracial child and co cofounder of Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally), testified in Congress: “I’m not a scholar, attorney, or lawmaker. I’m just a mother … and whether I like it or not, I realize that self-esteem is directly tied to accurate racial identity … my child has been white on the U.S. census, black at school, and multiracial at home, all at the same time.”  The Association of Multiethnic Americans was more explicit, commenting, “We want choice in the matter of who we are, just like any other community. We are not saying that we are a solution to civil rights laws or civil rights injustices of the past. [It is ironic that] our people are being asked to correct by virtue of how we define ourselves all of the past injustices [toward] other groups of people.”

In the 2000 census, 6.8 million Americans, 2.3 percent of the population checked more than one race.   Hispanics were more than three times likely as non-Hispanics to claim a mixture of “two or more races,” with most specifying “white” plus another race.  Importantly, 42 percent of Latinos chose the non-identifier, “some other race” (SOR), a sizeable category of people, outnumbering the total U.S. population of Asians and American-Indians combined.   For them, the OMB racial structure simply did not fit.  Rather, as the Panel on Hispanics in the United States noted, checking SOR reflected their “lived experience,” and a growing consciousness of Hispanics as a race, rather than ethnicity.

To address concerns about a rising share of census respondents selecting the “some other race” option – 6.2 percent in 2010 – and the irrelevancy of the current system of racial classification to so many, the Census Bureau is considering a combined race and ethnicity question for 2020, in which the Hispanic/Latino/Spanish question would be offered alongside the extant racial definitions.  As a result, the Bureau has launched the “most comprehensive effort in history to study race and ethnic categories,” according to Census Bureau officials Nicholas Jones and Roberto Ramirez. “Increasingly, Americans are saying they cannot find themselves [on census forms],” Jones stated.  Still, a proposed change is not without controversy, and some Latino groups have voiced concern that eliminating the separate question about Hispanic origin would result in a decrease in the number of Hispanics counted by the census.

Hispanics are not the only group being studied by the Census Bureau for possible inclusion as a separate racial category.  People of Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds were classified as white according to the 2010 census definition, yet are often unsure of how to identify themselves on census forms.  According to recent focus groups conducted by the Bureau, “Many participants … felt that the inclusion of the examples of Egyptian and Lebanese with the White racial category was “wrong” or “inaccurate.” These comments were often connected to the recommendation that there be a separate racial category for those who would identify as Middle Eastern, North African, or Arab.”

The census, like DNA testing, is a work in progress.  Changes have always been the norm, and the future will be no exception.  Just as we Americans are now coming to grips with the enormity of demographic change that has gripped the country in recent decades, the Census Bureau is struggling to classify us in a manner that better reflects who we have become, while at the same time, balancing advances in science with political demands. 

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