“Who’s Counted?”

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(While the above chart can’t be read in the screen shot above, it will send you to the readable page at the US Census web site for a full display of the different ways the United States has classified its citizens in each census from 1790-2010. The categories for the 2020 census can also be found at the site.)

The United States has counted its citizens in a formal census every ten years from 1790 to the present census underway in 2020. After 75 years the data is made available for researchers to explore. One of the fascinating aspects of the book Passing Strange which I reviewed two posts ago was the various ways that each member in the Copeland/King family was designated in the census counts in which they appeared during the last half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.

The first census in 1790 counted only slaves, free white males and females and “all other free persons.” The questions on race varied widely over the next 200 years. In 1860 we find Indian, Chinese, Black/Mulatto and White. But by 1890 the categories have changed to Indian, Chinese/Japanese, White, and the “one drop obsessed” Black/Mulatto/Quadroon/ Octaroon and White. To be clear, an “octaroon” has one black great grandparent. By 1900 this focus has been eliminated and it is back to Indian, Chinese/Japanese, Black(Negro or of Negro descent) and White. So even in the census Ada’s children go from white to black and back to white.

From an administration claiming to abhor “identity politics” which it says is an obsession of the Democrats, the census categories for 2020 seem to give lie to the statement. A respondent can choose from a seemingly endless list of “races.” But for the first time “White” is no longer a monolithic designation. Now, these people are asked, as others have been for years, for their “origins.” Examples given include English, Italian, Lebanese and Egyptian. I have no idea who has decided which nationalities are “white” since Spaniards are considered “Hispanic,” not “white.”

I found it rewarding to think about race in this nation through the lens of the census questions. Clearly as a country we have never been clear what we mean by “racial” categories. But that has never stopped us from continuing the tallies!

31 thoughts on ““Who’s Counted?”

  1. The whole question of identity designation should be reduced to two categories: “HUMAN” and “OTHER” — or perhaps HUMANE and INHUMANE (Trump would be ineligible for the latter two choices unless given with a lie detector).

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  2. In this country, we are allowed to specify what race we ‘think’ we are.
    I usually tick ‘White British’, but in some surveys, I tick ‘Other’, just to mix it up a bit.
    I have never really understood why any of it mattered.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    1. That would be fascinating to see what different people with identical genetics call themselves. I think it doesn’t matter but only reveals how race obsessed my country still is.

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  3. It’s interesting how the racial designations have changed over the course of our history reflecting our prejudices at the time. I admit I’m a bit suspicious about the various categories and why they matter or not.

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  4. I am always amused by how many POC here espouse the one-drop rule as a sense of identity. I identify as Mixed Black and I tick “Other” for every form and write in “West Indian” which is the ethnicity of people from the Caribbean.

    African Americans often troll me for this and say, “No matter what you put on the paper, White people will always treat you like a n!gger.”

    My reply is always that they need to re-evaluate why they so easily accept another race’s way of identifying them when they can identify themselves. Needless to say, I tick most AAs off on a regular basis …

    My ideas of race just don’t seem to coincide with their own. There’s a big difference in the idea of race for POC raised in a culture where they are the majority versus those who aren’t. We aren’t used to being told how to identify ourselves and rarely obey when we are.

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    1. I was astonished by how picky the new questions are. I also chuckle at how powerful African American heritage seems to be able to obliterate the white heritage! Thanks for adding to the discussion with helpful different information from Jamaica.

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      1. Ha! I suppose that’s why one drop is all it takes!

        I find that sometimes my White friends will slip and see an obviously Mixed child and refer to them as Black. Many of these guys are dating women of colour, so I always ask them, “If you have a child with your girlfriend, what is he?”

        This always catches them completely off guard and puts them in an awkward situation. If they say Black/Asian etc then they have just wiped themselves off the table. Where do they fit in? If they say White, then that begs the question of how society will or will not agree.

        None of them have ever answered the question. Not out of spite or anger, but because they have to admit it requires some thought.

        Also, you’re welcome! Haha.

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        1. There is a very funny ABC comedy on right now called “mixish.” It really captures the confusion in the early 80’s of kids who were biracial. Nice to get to laugh at some of the things that were so frustrating then.

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        2. Haha, I think the biracial world is especially confusing. I knew a guy with a Black mom who looked 100% White. He had bone straight hair, freckles and all. You could never tell. I knew his mom was Black and thought he was adopted until I saw them together. They look like different racial versions of the same person.

          One of the things I found interesting about him was his contradictory views on race. He said he ticked the White box on most forms because, you know, who turns down privilege? But he subscribed quite a bit to Black culture and was a bit of a hood rat. I mean, no credit score, no job, no house, no car, no savings, no financial literacy, smoked too much weed — every stereotype they ever had of hood rats, he took the cake.

          But then, he had moments when he identified as Mixed, not White. He would then tell me I can’t say I’m Mixed because I look predominantly Black, so I should identify as Black only. I asked him how he can say he’s Mixed when he looks primarily White. That stumped him. He was a strange and confused boy and I don’t think race was really the reason. I hope he finds his way one day.!

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        3. I think that after a lot of years of being asked “what are you?” a biracial person gets confused by others’ confusion. A person close to me answers “a human.”

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        4. In his case, no one ever asks him. He looks 100% White. Most Mixed people at least have curls or waves in their hair. He doesn’t. He has no tan either.

          I don’t mind being asked what I’m mixed with. I get that a lot here once someone is comfortable enough to ask. Jamaicans tend to be proud of our racial sprinklings, whatever they are.

          Here, the racial history is a lot different. You guys diverged on a completely different path than us after 1834, when it comes to race. So, I get that the question is a lot more loaded and the conversation is a lot more tense.

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        5. Here all conversations about race seem especially loaded at the moment what with one side saying “racism is over” and the other side calling out every “microaggression” on the planet.

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        6. Oh, I believe it. It’s terrible. The things White people apologize to me for here blow my mind. And then, you have the ones who feel that because they were raised among Blacks or Hispanics, they can say whatever the want. I rarely find anyone in the middle ground, particularly in the Southeast and Midwest.

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