Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Race and the Census: The “Negro” Controversy

The topic of racial identification on census forms has a long, fascinating history, which has generated fresh debate as the 2010 Census begins. Why, some ask, does the form include the word “Negro,” along with “black” and “African American,” among the options that Americans can choose for their self-identification? Isn’t that term out of date?

As you can see from the review that follows here, racial terms have come in and out of favor from one decade to the next. There was a similar debate about “Negro” in the 2000 Census, as there have been about other race terms in previous census years.

Before 1960, census-takers filled out the enumeration forms and chose the category for each American they counted. They used a detailed set of instructions from the government, key points of which are listed below. The 1960 Census was a transitional year in which census-takers chose the race for some Americans, and others self-identified from a list of categories.  From 1970 to 1990, most Americans filled out their own forms and checked off a race category for themselves. Starting in 2000, they could choose more than one.

When the census began in 1790, the racial categories for the household population were “free white” persons, other “free persons” by color, and “slaves.” Census-takers did not use standard forms in the early censuses.

For 1850-1880, the codes for enumerators were generally white (W), black (B) and mulatto (M). Beginning in 1850, the data item was labeled “color.” In 1870, Chinese (C) and Indian (I) were added. In 1880, the data item was not labeled; it was “whether this person is…” In 1890, “Japanese,” “quadroon” and “octoroon” were added.

In 1900, there were no specified categories on the census listing form, but the instructions called for enumerators to list “W” for white, “B” for “black (or negro or negro descent)”, “Ch” for Chinese, “Jp” for Japanese, or “In” for Indian “as the case may be.” There was no mention of “quadroon” or “octoroon.” This appears to be the first appearance of “negro” (lower case) in the instructions but it was not listed on the form itself.

In 1910, the data item was called “color or race” for the first time.  The instructions allowed for “Mu” for mulatto and “Ot” for other with an instruction to write in the race; “B” was called “black” only. The definition for “B” and “Mu” is: “For census purposes, the term ‘‘black’’ (B) includes all persons who are evidently full blooded negroes, while the term ‘‘mulatto’’ (Mu) includes all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood.”

In 1920, there were no changes. In 1930, there were specific instructions that used the term “Negro.” Persons who were mixed “White and Negro blood” were to be counted as “Negro” (apparently capitalized) no matter how small the share of “Negro blood.” (This so-called “one-drop rule” or variations of it appeared in census instructions beginning in 1870.) Persons who were mixed white-Indian were to be counted as Indian “except where the percentage of Indian blood was very small or where he or she was regarded as White in the community.” Any person who was “white” and “colored” was to be counted according to the “colored” race, and mixed colored races were to be counted according to the race of the father. There was an attempt in this census only to obtain figures for “Mex” (Mexicans), who were defined as “all persons born in Mexico, or having parents born in Mexico, who were not definitely White, Negro, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese.”

In 1940, the only change was the elimination of the “Mex” category, and Mexicans “were to be listed as White unless they were definitely Indian or some race other than White.”

In 1950, the census form listed the following categories:  “White (W), Negro (Neg), American Indian (Ind), Japanese (Jap), Chinese (Chi), Filipino (Fil),” and other races to be spelled out. Note that the form did not contain the term “Black.”

Beginning in 1960, the Census Bureau began to use forms similar to the ones in use today, with a single form for an entire household rather than having multiple households included on the form completed by an enumerator. Census forms were mailed to most people, but census-takers picked them up. The data item is called “Color or race” with categories for “White, Negro, American Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Part Hawaiian, Aleut, Eskimo, (etc.)”  Note that “black” did not appear on the form. The instructions called for census-takers to complete the race item by observation, and directed that Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, or other persons of Latin descent  would be classified as ‘‘White’’ unless they were definitely “Negro,” “Indian,” or some other race. Southern European and Near Eastern nationalities also were to be considered “White.” Asian Indians were to be classified as ‘‘Other,’’ and ‘‘Hindu’’ was to be written in.

Self-identification was fully in place for 1970 and later censuses. The 1970 data item was still called “color or race” with the following response categories: “White, Negro or Black, Indian (Amer.), Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Korean, Other (with write-in).” This was the first appearance of “black” since 1920.

In 1980, the “race” item was not labeled; it read “Is this person…” The list of categories was expanded to include: “Vietnamese, Asian Indian, Guamanian, Samoan, Eskimo, Aleut.”  In addition, the order of terms was changed to “Black or Negro.”

In 1990, the data item was relabeled; it was called “Race” for the first time, not “Color or Race.” The categories remained the same as in 1980, but the “Asian or Pacific islander” categories were grouped together with a heading and an “Other API” category with a write-in was added.

In 2000, respondents were allowed to pick more than one race for the first time.  The “race” data item retained essentially the same categories as in 1990 with a few adjustments. “Black or Negro” became “Black, African Am., or Negro” marking the first appearance of “African-American” on the Census form.  The three Native American categories were grouped together as “American Indian or Alaska Native” with a write-in of tribe.  “Guamanian” became “Guamanian or Chamorro” and “Hawaiian” became “Native Hawaiian”.  The “Other API” group was split into “Other Asian” and “Other Pacific Islander” with a separate write-in.  Finally, “Other” became “Some other race” with its own write-in line.

For 2010, the categories are the same as in 2000 but examples are given separately for “Other Asian” and “Other Pacific Islander.”  The form also has an instruction (in bold) appearing before the Hispanic-origin data item that says “NOTE: Please answer BOTH Question 5 about Hispanic origin and Question 6 about race. For this survey, Hispanic origins are not races.”

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