Understanding the Census and Racial Categories

From the moment the U.S. was founded, contentious debate over race ensued, especially concerning definitions of white, black, and Native American (or “American Indian”). This debate had real consequences in terms of the way federal tax revenue would be distributed to states as well as the number of legislators each state could send to the capitol. As a result, the original draft of the United States Constitution includes provisions regarding race and the U.S. Census. What may come as a surprise is how closely the two are linked.

When the United States Constitution was being written in 1787, a compromise was reached between Northern and Southern states whereby three-fifths of the population of slaves would be counted in the official population. At that time the U.S. population was approximately 4 million people, and one out of every five persons was a slave. The need for the three-fifths compromise stemmed from Northern states being largely comprised of free persons and Southern states of free persons and slaves. The fundamental question involved the best manner to count slaves as a part of the nation’s population. On the one hand, slaves could not vote. On the other hand, slaves made up the majority of the population in certain regions of the country.

Delegates from states opposed to slavery wanted to count the free inhabitants of each state and exclude slaves from the census. Delegates from states supportive of slavery wanted to count slaves by their actual numbers. Each group argued for a policy that best increased its chance of receiving economic and political advantages. The final compromise reduced the power of the Southern states by not counting slaves as whole individuals, but it did increase the Southern states’ numbers relative to the Northern states. Thus, even though slaves could not vote, three-fifths of their total number was included in the population. In the end, the compromise became part of Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution.

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. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.

What is interesting is that the sentence containing the three-fifths clause is immediately followed by a government mandate to conduct a “decennial” census (every ten years). It is as if the convention delegates knew that in order to implement the three-fifths clause, a regular census must be carried out. Thus, beginning as far back as 1787 we can see the importance of using the U.S. Census to collect data on race, i.e., “free persons” and “slaves.” While free blacks lived in the U.S. at this time, the vast majority lived in bondage, so counting “free persons” and “slaves” was akin to counting people by race. In fact, the very first U.S. Census, conducted in 1790, only asked six questions: (1) Name of the head of the household, (2) number of persons living in the household, (3) number of free white males who are sixteen years old or older living in the household; (4) number of free white males who are under the age of sixteen living in the household, and (5) the sexes and (6) colors of all of the other persons living in the household (U.S. Census).

Over the next 200 years the U.S. Census changed to suit the political, economic, and social needs of the nation; however, one thing stayed the same. People were always counted as belonging to one racial category, even if they were racially mixed.

It is impossible to try to count the number of multiracial people in the 1790 U.S. Census because of the racial categories used: white, slave, and “other.” The latter was used for “Free Coloreds,” or persons who were free but did not look white. Furthermore, Native Americans were intentionally excluded from the U.S. Census until 1890 (Jobe, 2004). Other types of government surveys were used to count them since tribes were usually accorded the status of quasi-sovereign nations. Census takers used their discretion to determine who fit in the category of “Free Colored,” so it is hard to identify the dividing lines between black, white, and “other.” A “Free Colored” could be a black person who was not a slave, a free person of mixed black and white ancestry, or a free person of another ethnic or racial origin whom the census taker did not feel was white. Sometimes these “others” included individuals of Portuguese, Turkish, or “Black Dutch” heritage. (Both Portuguese and Turkish people are considered “white” by modern U.S. Census standards.)

Map of US 1820

As early as the 1820 U.S. Census, the “Free Coloreds” category was used to identify a tri-racial population in Appalachia known as Melungeons. It is generally thought that Melungeons are of white, black, and Native American ancestry (Montell, 1972; Lipsey, 1977). Genealogists who traced the family trees of Melungeons found that their racial classification varied from census to census. In other words, a family may have been listed as “white” in 1790, “Free Colored” in 1820, and “Mulatto” in 1850 (Rowe, 2009). Often the appearance of Melungeons, such as the Goins family, also made people speculate they were of Portuguese, Turkish, or Middle Eastern descent (Philipkoski, 2009).

In the 19th century, categories such as mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, hexadecaroon, and quintroon were used to indicate varying levels of mixture between white and black. Mulatto described persons of mixed race, part black and part white. Quadroon meant one-quarter black ancestry. Octoroon meant one-eighth black. Hexadecaroon meant one-sixteenth black. Quintroon was a person who had one parent who was an octoroon and one white parent. These labels indicate that multiracial individuals didn’t fit in the black and white dichotomy of racial relations, and they occupied a separate category in the U.S. Census. Often, a social strata known as “Creoles” or gens de couleur libres (free persons of color) formed in places like New Orleans, Louisiana, which was notable for racial mixtures that didn’t fit easy classification.

In addition to introducing the Mulatto category in the 1850 U.S. Census, the debate over the three-fifths clause became especially impassioned in the years leading up to the Civil War because the future of slavery was in question. After the Civil War, Southern states saw their representation in Congress increase with the addition of free blacks to the census count. Northern Republicans countered with the Fourteenth Amendment, which reduced a state’s representation if it denied the right to vote to all male citizens (Anderson, 2002). The end of slavery rendered the three-fifths clause obsolete, but national politics continued to be shaped by it, and the U.S. Census continued to collect information on race. By 1890, the five racial groups tracked by the U.S. Census were white, black, mulatto, Indian (Native American), and Chinese. Hispanics were not counted as a separate race at this time. They were regarded as white by the U.S. Census.

The end of the Civil War did not engineer an immediate end to white supremacy and racial segregation, both of which accompanied the culture and legacy of slavery. After federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877, wealthy whites started to regain political power by disenfranchising blacks and poor whites through Jim Crow laws. The pernicious nature of these laws is exemplified in so-called intelligence and comprehension tests given to African American voters. The test questions were often incomprehensible or unanswerable. Bea Clark of Sardis, Mississippi, recalled being asked “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” If she failed to answer correctly, then she was forbidden to cast a ballot. Whites were excused from these types of questions because of “grandfather clauses,” which exempted anyone whose ancestors had the right to vote before the Civil War.

In 1896, Homer Plessy challenged a Jim Crow law in Louisiana that separated railroad passengers by race. He was one-eighth black and considered “colored,” i.e., neither black nor white because of his mixed background. Plessy’s case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the “separate but equal” treatment of coloreds and whites was legal in public places. This ruling reaffirmed racial segregation in schools, hospitals, trains, and many other public places.

Plessy v. Ferguson paved the way for even more restrictive and discriminatory segregation. Southern politicians sought to preserve the “purity” of the white race long after slave owners established the practice of fathering children with their enslaved women (Small, 1994). The push to ensure white racial purity resulted in the creation and enforcement of hypodescent laws or the “one drop rule,” in which anyone with “one drop” of “Negro blood” was considered black. Whereas a “colored” (racially mixed) man like Homer Plessy was able to use the same facilities as whites before 1890 that was no longer the case 30 years later.

With few exceptions, anyone who was not “pure” white was “colored” in the eyes of the law. As a result, the status of racially mixed people was largely relegated to that of the racial minority identified in their ancestry. At the same time, numerous people were successful at “passing” as white because of their light complexion (Golub, 2005). This demonstrates that even during times of strict racial segregation, there are areas of gray where dominant ideologies about race are negotiated, reinterpreted, and indirectly subverted.

The collection of census data (and lack thereof) on multiracial people continued in much the same way for the next 80 years, but the events that eventually led to major changes in the 2000 U.S. Census originated from government responses to the civil rights movement (Fernandez, 1996). The social unrest, protests, and riots that occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s to draw attention to the inequality experienced by racial minorities spurred landmark legislation, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

It became apparent to government leaders that the U.S. Census could be used as a tool to help measure racial equality and collect accurate figures for civil rights enforcement (Perlmann, 2002). A few months after implementing the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson enacted Executive Order 11185 to better organize the delivery of public education, especially with regard to underserved ethnic and racial minorities. This led to the formation of the Federal Interagency Committee on Education (FICE), which brought together 30 different federal agencies.

In 1973 FICE produced a report on access to higher education among Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Native American students. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Caspar Weinberger latched on to the part of the report that explained the absence of useful data on ethnic and racial groups because of a lack of common definitions. A year later an ad hoc committee was formed to solve this problem, which developed guidelines to make “compatible” and “nonduplicative” categories of race used by all federal agencies. One of the stipulations was that racial categories could not be combined or overlapped. In effect, this reinforced the system of mutually exclusive racial categories, and it led to the creation of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Directive No. 15: Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. The standard issued in 1977 defined five main racial categories.
• American Indian or Alaskan Native. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North America, and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliations or community recognition.
• Asian or Pacific Islander. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or the Pacific Islands. This area includes, for example, China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippine Islands, and Samoa.
• Black. A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.
• Hispanic. A person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.
• White. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East.

By 1994 the OMB’s standards of race and ethnicity were considered simplistic, and pressure built to revise them. Public hearings were conducted in which multiracial people demanded changes, such as, “adding a multi-racial category to the list of racial designations so that respondents would not be forced to deny part of their heritage by having to choose a single category”; “adding an other category for individuals of multi-racial backgrounds and those who want the option of specifically stating a unique identification”; and “providing an open-ended question to solicit information on race and ethnicity, or combining concepts of race, ethnicity, and ancestry” (Office of Management and Budget).

Nearly 30 years after the Loving v. Virginia decision legalized interracial marriage in the U.S., the movement to grant multiracial people the freedom to create and define their own identities on government forms was well underway (Weisman, 1996). The impetus largely came from two sources. (1) Organizations like the Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA), A Place for Us (APFU), and Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) pushed for change on the national level (Farley, 2002; Williams, 2005; Spencer, 1999). White women married to middle-class black men spearheaded petitions at the state and local level because they felt their children were being forced to choose one parent over the other on government forms (Williams, 2006).

Conservative political leaders such as Newt Gingrich and Ward Connerly supported the shift to multiracial classification, largely because they saw it as contributing to the curtailment of race-based affirmative action programs (Williams, 2006). Republican Congressman Thomas Petri of Wisconsin introduced H.R. 830 in the 104th Congress (June 1996), which tried to force the OMB to add a multiracial category to the 2000 U.S. Census. Petri dubbed this the “Tiger Woods Bill.” Despite numerous efforts, Tiger Woods refused to join or endorse the multiracial cause (Williams, 2005).

Opposition to multiracial identification appeared from the old guard of the civil rights movement, including many Democrats in Congress. They argued that allowing multiple racial identities on government forms would reduce the visibility of racial minorities in statistical data, especially African Americans who are already undercounted by government agencies.3 The cumulative effect would be a reduction of money and services to minority communities (Williams, 2006). It has also been observed that discussion involving multiracial identification and racial classification is inseparable from administering the modern welfare state, especially with regard to civil rights enforcement and affirmative action programs (Skerry, 2002).

In the end, the OMB capitulated to the demands of those advocating for the inclusion of multiracial identities on government forms. By 1997 it was decided that selecting more than one racial category would be permitted beginning with the 2000 U.S. Census.

Comments are closed.