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A (short) history of the race question on the decennial census

March 30, 2020
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One of the most widely discussed topics on the decennial census are the questions on race, Hispanic origin and ancestry. This conversation is not new for 2020. In fact, the way that we classify people by race and ethnicity has changed frequently since the first census in 1790. The 2020 census questionnaire asks people to self-identify with one or more of the following racial categories:

  • White
  • Black or African American
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese or other Asian
  • Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro or other Pacific Islander
  • Some other race
The way that we classify people by race and ethnicity has changed frequently since the first census in 1790.

In addition to checking off the applicable race category(ies), people are also asked in an open-ended question to fill in their ancestry, origin or native tribe. [bctt tweet="On the first #census, there were only THREE race categories. How many are on the #2020Census? Find out here" username="CommunitySols"]

Separately from race, the Hispanic origin question lists the following categories:

  • No, not Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin
  • Yes, Mexican, Mexican American or Chicano
  • Yes, Puerto Rican
  • Yes, Cuban
  • Yes, another Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin
In the 230 years from 1790 through the present, the race questions have undergone extensive changes from one census to the next.

In the 230 years from 1790 through the present, the race questions have undergone extensive changes from one census to the next. Major changes resulted from immigration, emancipation and changing attitudes toward inclusiveness and race. It is important to note that self-identification has been in effect only since the first mail-out census in 1960; from 1790 to 1950, racial designation was determined by the observations of census-takers.

Changes in the racial categories used in the decennial census from 1790 to the present, are summarized below. From this account, it is clear that many factors have been at play, such as immigration (for the Asian groups), changes in legal status (emancipation of African American slaves and the counting of Native Americans), and the growing self-awareness of the Hispanic/Latino population.

The most striking feature of these classifications, however, lies in the development of different ways of counting African Americans. Although the ‘one-drop’ rule – an outdated classification that asserted anyone with one ancestor from sub-Saharan Africa was considered Black - was only codified in the 1930 census, it reflected implicit customs and practices from the post-emancipation times of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The intent of these categories seems to have been to draw a distinction between multiracial people of both Black and white background and “pure” whites. (Now that people can self-identify as multiple races, the ‘one-drop’ rule no longer applies.) In the context of Jim Crow and other legal segregation practices, it can be seen that the stain of racial discrimination was present even in a neutral and “scientific” enterprise such as the U.S. Census. It is worth reflecting on as we struggle to overcome the legacy of racism.

Now that people can self-identify as multiple races, the ‘one-drop’ rule no longer applies.

1790, 1800, 1810: The first three censuses had three race categories: “free whites,” “all other free persons” and “slaves.”

1820, 1830, 1840: These censuses added the category of “free colored persons” to the three original ones.

1850: As a result of increased interest in theories of racial hierarchy, “mulatto” (half-Black) was added as a category to both free and slave populations. Increased immigration, largely from Ireland, led to the introduction of a question about place of birth.

1860: For the first time, Native Americans (then called “Indians”) were counted, but only those who were taxed, indicating that they lived apart from their tribes. The growing Chinese population was also counted, but only in California.

1870 and 1880: In the first Census after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1870, the racial categories were “white,” “Black,” “mulatto,” “Indian” and “Chinese” (applied nationwide). As second-generation immigrants were born in this country, place of birth” was replaced by “parental place of birth” to track immigration. The categories were the same in the 1880 census.

1890: The 1890 census saw more changes to racial categories. In addition to Chinese, Japanese was added to reflect immigration from that country, and all Native Americans were counted, not just those living away from their tribes. Reflecting interest in quantifying mixed-race people, the categories of “quadroon” (one-fourth Black) and “octoroon” (one-eighth Black) were used, in addition to mulatto.

1900: The categories mulatto, quadroon and octoroon were dropped, replaced by “Black (Negro or Negro descent).” The other categories of white, Indian, Chinese and Japanese remained as they were in 1890.

1910: “Mulatto” was restored as a category, and a slight change was made to “Black (Negro).” For the first time a category of “other race” was used, which predominantly included Koreans, Filipinos and “Hindus” (as Asian Indians were then designated).

1920: “Korean,” “Filipino” and “Hindu” were made into their own categories. “Black (Negro)” and mulatto remained as in 1910, as did White, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and “other.”

1930: The 1930 census was notable for formalizing hypodescent, or the “one-drop” rule, through instructions to census-takers. The mulatto category was dropped, but anyone with any perceptible trace of “black blood” was designated as Negro. More generally, any mixture of white and non-white should be reported according to the non-white parent. In addition, “Mexican” was introduced as a racial category; previous censuses categorized “Mexicans” as white.

1940: Except for the “Mexican” category being dropped and “Mexicans” re-designated as white, the racial categories remained the same as in 1930: white, Negro, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Hindu and other.

1950: The Korean and Hindu categories were dropped as separate races, and “Indian” was changed to “American Indian” to distinguish them from Asian Indians.

Nineteen sixty was also the first census to let people identify their own racial category, rather than have it determined by the observation of census-takers.

1960: The admission of Alaska and Hawaii as states introduced new racial categories: “Eskimo,” “Aleut,” “Hawaiian” and “part-Hawaiian.” This was also the first census to let people identify their own racial category, rather than have it determined by the observation of census-takers.

1970: The census introduced a question on Hispanic background separate from the race question. The categories were “Mexican,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban,” “Central or South American” and “other Spanish-speaking countries.” The race categories were white, Negro or Black, Indian (Amer.), Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Hawaiian and other.

1980: After being absent from the 1970 Census (when they were grouped with American Indian), the Eskimo and Aleut categories returned. “Vietnamese” and “Asian Indian” were introduced, as well as “Guamanian” and "Samoan.” The Hispanic categories were changed slightly to “Mexican, Mexican-Amer, Chicano,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban” and “other Spanish/ Hispanic.” In addition, a new open-ended question was added to allow people to list their ancestry or nationality.

1990: The category “other Asian/ Pacific Islander” was added.

For the first time, the 2000 census allowed people to specify more than one race.

2000 and 2010: For the first time, the 2000 census allowed people to specify more than one race. The categories were “white,” ‘Black, African American, or Negro;” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Chinese,” “Japanese” “Korean,” “Filipino,” “Vietnamese,” “Asian Indian,” “other Asian,” “Native Hawaiian,” “Guamanian or Chamorro,” “Samoan,” “other Pacific Islander” and “some other race.” The Hispanic/ Latino categories were unchanged in 2000 from what they were in 1980 and 1990. Both the racial and Hispanic categories were unchanged from 2000 to 2010.

Source: Karen Humes and Howard Hogan. “Measurement of Race and Ethnicity in a Changing, Multicultural America.” Race and Social Problems (2009) 1:111-131.

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