(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!