Race and the Census: The “Negro” Controversy

Race and the Census: The “Negro” Controversy

Pew Research: Social & Demographic Trends
Pew Research Center

D’Vera Cohn, Senior Writer

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 Isn’t that term out of date?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…

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