April 01, 2016

1920s Census sheet

A census form from 1920 in Massachusetts. Credit: Brian Kelley / Flickr Creative Commons

Every ten years - since 1790 - the United States has asked residents about their gender, citizenship status, marital status, number of children, and race.

It’s a practice written into the constitution, and each decade, the questions have evolved in order to gather more detailed information about the country’s growing population.

Despite this evolution, the categorization of race has been largely about separating "white" from "races other than white."

Kenneth Prewitt, a former director of the Census Bureau and author of “What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans,” says that the kinds of questions we’ve asked about race have been misguided.

Back in 1890, the census included options like "Quadroon" or "Mulatto" to describe people of mixed race. It wasn’t until 1980 that the census eliminated the question asking to identify a person’s “color.”

“We've got a questionnaire which is half-based upon historic races and half-based upon national origin,” Prewitt says.

“I would rather have a system that is based upon national origin. It's much more refined; that is, you get much more specificity, a system that is based upon national origin and immigrant status.”

Ignoring national origin makes filling out the census complicated for multiracial and first-generation Americans.

Prewitt also questions the widely-held notion, often tied to census data, that we will soon be a country in which minorities are the majority.

“It's not that what [the census is] saying is a falsehood. They're extrapolating from current trends, but they're counting everyone who is mixed race as if they are a minority,” he says. “I think that by the time we get to mid-century, a lot of people that are now thought of as 'minorities' are going to be put in a ‘white’ category.”

According to Prewitt, this has happened before, when Italians and Eastern Europeans were viewed as “alien” a century ago. Over time, though, they assimilated into the white mainstream that initially rejected them.

Prewitt says census data also influences how we talk about race.

“There is an element of our society that believes that we should have a color-blind census… I am certainly not in that camp. I think there are huge injustices that are vested upon different kinds of groups in our society.”

Which, he says, means we need to get the census right.

“We do have to get our statistics closer to the complicated, diverse reality of our population in order to make more intelligent public policies and fundamentally better understand ourselves as a society.”

Culture, Kenneth Prewitt, Census, race

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