The latest U.S. census includes categories of “race” and “ethnicity” that have little logic but are deeply rooted in American history. Much can be learned by examining the way in which these categories have been sculpted over the years and the problems associated with jerry-rigging something as important as the census based on insular and faulty claims of what constitutes race and ethnicity.
The U.S census has long expressed an interest in knowing the race of the respondents. Although not the initial reason for the inquiry, the data collected on race are historically interesting and provide information to researchers. Theoretically the information is used today to ensure and monitor the extension of rights to minorities. However, in order for the information to be useful to both researchers and those looking to ensure rights it must have some connection to reality. In recent years certain lobbies, politics, notions of multiculturalism and ignorance have left the census convoluted and nonsensical.
Race has existed on the U.S. census since 1790. In the first years of the republic the questions divided people into free whites, enslaved blacks and people of mixed race (then called mulatto). In 1870, the categories of Chinese and American Indian were added, a reflection of the influx of Chinese after the gold rush in 1849.
In 1890, new racial categories such as “octoroon” (1/8 black) appeared alongside the addition of Japanese. Through 1920 there was an increased interest on the census in dividing Asian groups into categories such as Hindu and Filipino much as there was an interest in defining various degrees of black and white. The latter
reflected the “scientific” fad of eugenics. In 1930, Mexican appeared for the first time on the census.
In 1950, the census attempted to regain some sense by removing Korean and Hindu. It is not clear why the census creators felt that numerous Asian groups, such as Japanese and Koreans and Chinese, were significantly different while all whites were lumped into the same category. However, 1960 saw the addition of new small group definitions in the form of Alaskan natives, and part Hawaiian, not to mention pure Hawaiians.
The 1970 census was, it seems, the first to attempt to track the different types of Hispanics in the U.S. with a special questionnaire asking if people originated in South America, Cuba, Puerto Rico or Mexico. This was a reflection of increased Mexican immigration and the new Cuban diaspora that had fled Castro’s revolution in 1960.
The 1980 census added more groups from Asia, including Samoans and Vietnamese, a reflection of the arrival of the “boat people” after the end of the Vietnam War.
The current U.S. census is not dramatically different from the one in 2000 in its racial classifications. People are asked to identify their “ethnicity,” choosing Hispanic or non-Hispanic. Those who choose Hispanic can choose from a number of countries of origin. After choosing his or her ethnicity the census taker then must struggle with the racial question. There are 10 racial groups for Asians, from Samoans to Vietnamese. All of those with origins in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East are considered white. Similarly all blacks, whether born in Ethiopia or those who identify as black in the U.S. are lumped into the same category.
Critics of the census have complained about the lack of Arab representation and the confusing creation of a Hispanic “ethnicity” that turns Mexicans into Mexican-white or Mexican-black but never simply Mexican.
The U.S. census race category is a farce and it sets the norm for other race questionnaire s, such as college admissions applications. In California there are as many as 12 Asian classifications, five Hispanic ones and just one for blacks and whites and American Indians (Alaskan Natives are included with them).
Some of the origins of the illogic are historical. Since 1790, America has been concerned with determining who is black and who is white. Since the 1870s, Asians have had a special and unique place on the census. The creation of a Hispanic ethnicity was instituted specifically to make sure that black remained America’s second-largest “racial” minority. The Balkanization of Asian ethnicities has no logic.
It would be beneficial to all Americans, of all shades, to have an overhaul of the next census that frees it from the racial whims that have dominated it for so long.
Seth Frantzman is completing a Ph.D. in geography, with an emphasis on historical demography, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was born in Greenville.