Should the Census Be Asking People if They Are Negro? / Corbis
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Use of the word Negro to describe a black person has largely fallen out of polite conversation — except on the U.S. Census questionnaire. There, under "What is this person's race?" is an option that reads, "Black, African Am., or Negro." That has raised the ire of certain black activists and politicians as the Census Bureau gears up to mail out its once-a-decade questionnaires. The controversy has been cast by many as an instance of a tone-deaf agency not keeping up with the times. In actuality, the flash point represents a much larger theme: the often contentious way the Census both reflects and forges our evolving understanding of race. (See the best pictures of 2009.)

The immediate reason the word Negro is on the Census is simple enough: in the 2000 Census, more than 56,000 people wrote in Negro to describe their identity — even though it was already on the form. Some people, it seems, still strongly identify with the term, which used to be a perfectly polite designation. To blindly delete it is to risk incorrectly counting the unknown number of (presumably older) black Americans who identify with the term. (See rare photos at home of Martin Luther King Jr.)

But the Census Bureau is aware that times are changing — and not just when it comes to the word Negro. As part of the 2010 Census, the bureau will test 15 major changes to questions about race and Hispanic origin. For each, approximately 30,000 households will receive a slightly different questionnaire so that demographers and statisticians can use data — along with follow-up interviews — to decide if the modification helps or hurts the accuracy and consistency of information collected. "We hope this will help us better understand the way people identify with these concepts," says Nicholas Jones, chief of the Census' racial-statistics branch. One change being tested: deleting the word Negro. Others include combining queries about Hispanic origin and race into one question and getting rid of the word race in the question altogether.

Those modifications could have a lasting impact on how Americans think about race. Census data underpin broad stretches of society, from federal regulations to corporate marketing strategies, and how data are framed when collected speaks to our collective worldview (both contemporary and historical). Consider that in a 2006 study of 138 censuses from around the world, New York University sociologist Ann Morning found that only 15% of those asking about ancestry or national origin used the term race. Almost all of those that did were former slave economies. (See a video of perspectives in Harlem on President Obama's first year in office.)

Further, among nations Morning studied, only the U.S. asked about Hispanic ethnicity in a stand-alone question. (Race and ethnicity are synonymous practically everywhere else in the world.) Morning concluded that talking about the two separately, as is done in the U.S., could unintentionally reinforce the view that while ethnicity is a product of culture and society, race represents something else — a set of characteristics inherent to a certain type of person (e.g., black people are athletic; Asians are smart). (See TIME's special on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

If it seems like a stretch that the Census would have such grand influence, take a moment for a little history. The first Census, in 1790, explicitly asked about only one race: white. Blacks, for the most part, fell into the slave category. Race was about civil status. In the 19th century, concerns about keeping the white race pure led to the addition of the "mulatto" category in 1850 (and "quadroon" and "octoroon" in 1890), a process traced by Harvard political scientist Melissa Nobles in her book Shades of Citizenship. With rising immigration, Chinese and Japanese were added as categories — but not Irish or Italian — underscoring that somehow Asians were more fundamentally different.

In the civil rights era of the 20th century, Census data took on a whole new meaning. The antidiscrimination laws written in the 1960s and the affirmative-action policies that followed relied on Census data to determine if minorities were underrepresented in any number of realms, from home sales to small-business loans. One of the largest leaps in the Census' racial scheme came in 2000 when, for the first time, respondents were allowed to check more than one race box. The change was celebrated by those hoping to usher in an era of postracial America and assailed by those fearing the weakening of civil rights enforcement.

As it turns out, neither extreme came to pass — partly because only 2.4% of the population checked more than one race. Nonetheless, the instruction to "mark one or more boxes" signified a major turning point in how the Census sets the parameters for national discussion. In the words of former Census director Kenneth Prewitt, we are now moving from "a justice-based classification system" to "an identity-based classification system." If not revolution, that is at least evolution. (See the world's most influential people in the 2009 TIME 100.)

And it continues today. One of the possible changes the Census is testing during the 2010 count is allowing respondents to check more than one box not just for race but for Hispanic origin as well. A popular rally cry during the push to allow multiple races was, Why should a person with one black parent and one white parent be forced to choose between them? Indeed, why should a person with a Hispanic mother and non-Hispanic father be any different?

Another change under review is letting people who check "white" or "black" to write in more specific information afterward. In recent years, groups representing a number of backgrounds, including Afro-Caribbean and Arab, have lobbied to be included separately on the Census instead of being confined to broad categories (black for people of Afro-Caribbean decent; white for those with Arab ancestry). By trying out additional write-in blanks, the Census is attempting to see what other designations it might be able to reliably collect data about.

For the time being, write-in responses still often need to be shoehorned into broader categories for the purpose of following certain laws based on official statistics. But in the longer term, the write-in box could prove to be an even more momentous step in the evolution of racial categorization than the ability to check more than one race. By encouraging wider swaths of people to explain as precisely as possible how they see themselves, the Census is implicitly acknowledging that its count of the U.S. population is increasingly becoming a conduit for self-expression. "We are measuring the characteristics of the American people as they wish to be known," says Prewitt.

That is true even when the way a person wishes to be known is as a Negro — at least for the time being. Considering that older black people are more likely to use the term, Negro will almost surely eventually come off the Census. But it is important to remember that when it does, it will not be a simple reaction to changing social mores. In 1970 the Census changed its black category from "Negro" to "Negro or Black." The Federal Government sent a form to every U.S. household and effectively said, We have a new way of thinking about this particular group of people. Census categories reflect perceptions. But they also forge them.

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