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220 years of census data proves race is a social construct

The census is a survey the United States conducts every decade to take stock of who lives in the country. But it's also more than that: The census is a time capsule of a place and era during which it is collected — the survey's race and ethnicity categories are a testimony of that.

You can see in this interactive what labels the agency has used over time, since the census began in 1790, and also how the government might have categorized you had you lived in that era.

Take me as an example. I'm a German-born first-generation Vietnamese immigrant to New York — or that's how I identify today. In 1860, the government first started counting people of Asian descent but only people of Chinese descent. Had I lived in the US in that era, the census taker — who was the person who got to pick my racial identity for me — might have mistaken me as Chinese.

In 1910, I might have been categorized as "Other," which is how most non-Chinese or non-Japanese Asians were classified. In 1980, the census finally added a racial category that was more inclusive of me: Vietnamese.

The census has changed as Americans have grown in their views of racial identity, albeit slowly.

In 2013, the agency announced that it was going to drop the term "Negro." The term was first introduced as a way to classify black people in 1900 and has been used on and off since then, most recently in the 2010 census. Last year, the Census Bureau also explored the option of "Middle Eastern and Northern African" as another racial category and might include it in the 2020 census. Currently, people with this background are classified as "White."

These categories may seem mundane, but how people in the US are counted and referred to matters.

Census data is used to allocate federal programs and heavily informs how lawmakers craft policies, especially around civil rights. From legislative redistricting to promoting equal employment opportunities to detecting whether some racial groups are exposed to more health risks than others, the more granular our definitions of who we are, the better our analysis of the current state of our country.

Moreover, it's about the importance of calling people what they want to be called and being more respectful to whom they describe.

We're just now taking the words "Negro" and "Oriental" out of federal laws

Alongside the census changes, Congress voted to modernize the language of two laws that protect minority businesses.

Up until then, the laws defined minorities as "Negro," "American Indian," "Eskimo," "Oriental," "Aleut," or "a Spanish-speaking individual of Spanish descent." These terms are now replaced with "African American,"  "Native American," "Asian American," "Alaska Native,"  "Native Hawaiian," "Pacific Islander," and "Hispanic," respectively.

"The term ‘Oriental' has no place in federal law, and at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good," Rep. Grace Meng said in a statement. She sponsored the bill that led to the elimination of the outdated terms in May and had passed a similar law in 2009 that banned the use of "Oriental" in all official New York state documents.

"No longer will any law of the United States refer to Asian Americans in such an offensive way. [...] Many Americans may not be aware that the word ‘Oriental' is derogatory. But it is an insulting term that needed to be removed from the books, and I am extremely pleased that my legislation to do that is now the law of the land," Meng said in the statement.

There were three racial categories in 1790. Now the government has 19.

To some degree the changes in terms reflected what happened in data collection processes: As technological advance made it easier for us to gather and analyze information, our data became more complicated. The US Census has been around since the first survey was conducted in 1790. Back then, roughly 650 US Marshals were sent out to measure the nation's population.

Fast-forward to the latest census in 2010. Now the government employs about 635,000 census workers who help measure the US's population.

But changes in categories reflect how much more diverse the US has become. Since the first census was conducted, both the number of minorities and the percentage of the population that identifies as an ethnic minority have risen significantly. In 2000, the Census Bureau started allowing survey takers to select more than one race.

We've also gone from being people who merely get registered to having a say in how we are registered. Until 1960, census workers determined your race for you. Since then, US residents have had to answer a somewhat loaded question: What race am I?

The census's struggle to categorize race

In an ever more diverse country, this question posed a lot of conundrums for people. Census Bureau researchers analyzed a sample of 168 million anonymized census responses and found that 10 million people — or roughly one in 20 — had changed their race between 2000 and 2010.

The Census Bureau is now also experimenting with not using the word "race" at all when asking people about their ethnic background. Instead, it's toying with the idea of requiring people to select a category.

What researchers confirmed is something that minorities understand and live every day: Racial identity is complicated, and race isn't biological as the census takers might once have thought. Race was and is socially constructed by "political regimes, through intergroup relations, and via personal interaction."

Native Americans are one of the starkest examples of this prioritization. "Native American" was not a category in the US Census until about 70 years after the first census was conducted. When a category for Native Americans, "Indian," was finally introduced in 1860, only tax-paying Native Americans who had renounced their tribal citizenship and had assimilated to American life were counted. But that did not take into consideration the multitude of tribes that lived the US when European settlers first arrived.

Since then, the term has undergone a number of changes — from "Indian" to "American Indian" to "Aleut, Eskimo, or American Indian" to "American Indian or Alaska Native" and "Native Hawaiian" — but to some, the term still seems insufficient for how large a part of the US Native Americans were.

"Imagine the complexity of what it means to be a ‘tribal member' or citizen when there are some 562 recognized tribes each with their own definition?" wrote Mark Trahant, the Charles R. Johnson professor of journalism at University of North Dakota, who researched the history of data collection in Indian country. "If you start with that problem, how does the data reflect what it means to be an American Indian?"


Notes: The five major groups in the dropdown menu reflect the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) race classifications. According to the OMB, someone classified as White is someone who has origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa; a classification of Black or African American signifies someone who has origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa; an American Indian or Alaska Native person is someone who has origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment; an Asian person is someone with origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam; and a Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander person is someone who has origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.

Unless persons were omitted purposely in a count, such as non-tax-paying Native Americans, the term "All other free persons" we assigned to ethnic minorities between 1790 and 1840. In 1890, Congress mandated the introduction of supplementary "black blood" quantum categories, "Quadroon" and "Octoroon," for the census.

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