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The Way The U.S. Census Tracks Race Has Changed Over Time


While the nation is preoccupied with the coronavirus, the work of counting the country's residents continues. One big question throughout the history of the U.S. census is how to categorize different races and ethnicities. NPR's Code Switch podcast is reporting on the many implications of what box you check. Here's NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The census is 230 years old. And for all that time, there's always been a racial category.

MARGO ANDERSON: The Constitution required the separation of the slave and the free populations.

GRIGSBY BATES: Margo Anderson, at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, has been studying the census for her entire career.

ANDERSON: The first census in 1790 had to identify free people and slaves. And they used the word white, so it was free whites and other free people and slaves.

GRIGSBY BATES: Thirty years later, though, they had started using the term free colored. It was assumed slaves were colored - then another distinction.

ANDERSON: By 1850, they began to put in the term black or mulatto.

GRIGSBY BATES: And it continued to change. Only some American Indians were counted until the government declared all, on and off the reservation, citizens in 1924. By the mid-1800s, Anderson said, other populations were being counted.

ANDERSON: Chinese show up in 1870, Japanese in 1890.

GRIGSBY BATES: Those categories weren't always entirely accurate, and they were influenced by public opinion.

ANDERSON: The biggest example of something coming on and going right off is Mexican in 1930.

GRIGSBY BATES: That racial designation lasted for one census cycle - one. After it appeared, Mexicans on both sides of the border objected, and the Mexican box was removed 10 years later. So Mexicans became white again in the 1940 census and, in 1970, became part of a new category - Hispanic. Hindu was actually listed as a racial category in 1940, even though that's a religion not a race. All that finally changed in 1952 with new naturalization laws. Then there's identity. Before people were allowed to self-identify, a census taker or enumerator made the decision. Looking at you, he or she decided what you most likely were based on where you lived and who else was in your household. And those households are more diverse than ever. The numbers of interracial marriages and multiracial families continues to increase, and lots of those people don't want to have to choose just one thing. Multiracial advocates have been pressing since the late 1980s for more diverse categories. And in 2000, they got them.

ANDERSON: The public, essentially, when they see the form, reacts to it. And people are reacting right now to what they see on the 2020 form.

GRIGSBY BATES: And those reactions likely will change the categories on the 2030 census.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.