From the Left



The 2020 U.S. Census: Historical Precedents and What Censuses Tell Us about Populations and Power, Past and Present: Part II

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau made public its first reports on the 2020 census. This part of a multipart column on racial and ethnic census categories traces the complex and often contested evolution of such classifications through the end of the 19th century.

Most contemporary American social scientists believe that race is socially constructed and maintain that the racial classification of humans lacks any scientific foundation. Human genome and genetic studies conducted over the last three decades, however, point to five genetically distinct human groups clustered around specific geographic regions: Africa, Europe, East Asia, the Americas and Oceania.

Whatever the case, governments, organizations, businesses and society still find racial classifications useful. The federal government, for example, uses census information on race and ethnicity for affirmative action purposes; organizations ranging from the Native American Journalists Association to Black Lives Matter to the Asian Law Caucus embrace specific race categories as matters of identity that foster group solidarity.

The creation and subsequent transmutations of racial and ethnic census categories are reflections of political, social and even individual power. Historically, those who held federal political power, such as legislators and census officials, have determined census racial and ethnic categories. Throughout most of the census's history, enumerators on the ground have enjoyed some discretionary power to ascertain individuals' race and ethnicity. Meanwhile, interest groups from antebellum slave masters to the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, have lobbied, sometimes successfully, for the creation or elimination of racial and ethnic categories. And since 1970, individuals have had the power to determine their own race and/or ethnicity through self-identification.

In the 1840s, slavery and its expansion became increasingly divisive, polarized and politicized issues, pitting northern abolitionists and slaves seeking freedom against increasingly defensive and violent pro-slavery white southerners. The period also saw a peak in anti-immigrant sentiments that led to the formation of the Know-Nothing nativist political party.

The 1850 census included new questions and categories that reflected the growing conflict over slavery and immigration. It further emphasized distinctions between free and slave with the use of two different schedules: "No. 1 -- Free Inhabitants," and "No. 2 -- Slave Inhabitants."

In response to contemporary pseudoscientific debates about the effects of racial mixing, the 1850 census introduced the "mulatto" category to distinguish color gradations among slaves. New questions were added on the escape or manumission of slaves and their physical and mental capacities.

Slavery advocates called for such information to demonstrate that race mixing produced inferior offspring who were more likely to flee and be "deaf and dumb, blind, insane or idiotic," while abolitionists marshalled such information to prove, as William H. Seward put it, the rapid progress of the African race.


Responding to interest in information on the growing proportion of immigrants, particularly Catholics, the 1850 Census for the first time recorded information on the place of birth of all free inhabitants. The growth in immigration from southern and eastern Europe beginning in the 1870s led to new census inquiries about "mother tongue" and parents' and grandparents' place of birth.

Beginning in the 1850s, tens of thousands of Chinese workers settled in the United States, particularly in California, where they labored as miners, farmers and railroad construction workers. The 1860 census classified Chinese residents as "white" but 10 years later added "Chinese" as a new "color" category which included other East Asians. As Chinese immigration increased over the next two decades, so did racist sentiment that culminated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, whereby further Chinese immigration was suspended for a decade. Deemed more likely to assimilate to the American society, Japanese immigrants were separated from the Chinese beginning in the 1890 census.

Reconstruction- and Jim Crow-era Southern white supremacist ideology filtered into late-century censuses through a host of new racial categories whose object was to establish even firmer distinctions between white and Black citizens and to implement the so-called one-drop rule, which stipulated that individuals with small and barely noticeable African ancestry be categorized as nonwhite. In 1890, census enumerators received instructions to register as "black" anyone having "three-fourths or more black blood," as "mulatto" those who have "from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood," as "quadroon," anyone having "one-fourth black blood," and "those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood" as "octoroons."

More to come on Part III.


Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History." Readers can reach him at To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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