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

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

U.S. census race and ethnicity questions and categories continued to change over the 20th century and first two decades of the 21st.

After dropping the "mulatto" racial category in 1900, the U.S. Census Bureau revived it in 1910 and 1920 and finally got rid of it in 1930, when enumerators received instructions to designate as "Negro" any person "of mixed white and Negro blood ... no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood." Curiously, in previous censuses Black and/or mulatto census enumerators tended to favor the "mulatto" race designation more than white enumerators, who were more inclined to follow the one-drop rule of Blackness. W.E. B. Dubois and other Black leaders, meanwhile, deemed the mulatto distinction as divisive and injurious to solidarity among Black people.

The 1930 census saw other changes, among them the creation of a "Mexican race." Previously, Mexicans were categorized mostly as white, but some were designated as mulatto regardless of whether they had African ancestry. The racialization of Mexicans responded to growing apprehensions about the expanding Mexican population in states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Most of them, however, were neither immigrants nor descendants of immigrants; it was the U.S.-Mexico border that "migrated" south during the Mexican War of 1846.

Mexican U.S. residents and lobby groups as well as the Mexican government protested the new "Mexican" racial label because it removed all Mexican-born individuals and those who had Mexican parents from the white category, regardless of their "actual race." Mexicans and groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens succeeded, forcing the census to renew the designation of Mexicans as white.

The first half of the 20th century saw other uses of census information to further segregate white people from other groups, denote their racial and social supremacy and promote a homogeneous population of British and Western European stock. The Immigration Act of 1924 sought to reduce immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe by establishing national immigration quotas based on population proportions dating back to the 1890 census. The 1924 law excluded Japanese immigrants altogether, and during WWII, census officials provided information that the military used to round up and intern around 120,000 Americans of Japanese birth or descent.

By 1936, the Census had established the race and nationality categories that continue to be used up to the present. It recognized three races -- white, Negro, (American) Indian -- and various Asian and Asian Pacific Islander nationalities.

The next major change happened in 1980 -- I was 20 at the time and worked as a census enumerator while studying at the University of Puerto Rico. Besides the long-established questions about race and nationality, the 1980 census asked individuals whether they were "Spanish/Hispanic" or not. Those who responded affirmatively were required to self-identify as belonging to one of the following: "Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano," "Puerto Rican," "Cuban" or "other Spanish/Hispanic." Much to the consternation of many in Spain, Spaniards are not recorded as white as is the case for other Europeans; Egyptians and Lebanese people, contrastingly, are designated white.


With the passing of time, certain racial labels have changed to align census questionnaires with more current taxonomies. In 2000, "Spanish/Hispanic" was expanded to "Spanish/Latino/Hispanic" and the word "African American" was added to "Black/Negro." Long obsolete and widely considered offensive, the word "Negro" was removed only in 2020.

Since 1970, the U.S. census has offered an "other race" option. The number and proportion of American residents checking that category has increased sharply since 2000, as demonstrated by an exhaustive study concluding that from 2000 to 2010, 10 million Americans changed their race/ethnicity self-designation; 2.5 million individuals who self-identified as "Hispanic" and "some other race" in 2000 changed to "Hispanic" and "white" a decade later.

The most recent reminder of the fact that census questions and categories are never politically neutral and are often controversial was the Trump administration's attempt to include citizenship questions in the 2020 census. The proposed questions, whose inclusion was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 2019, paralleled yet another peak in nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment. The administration wanted to know not only who was a citizen and who was not, but also who had been naturalized and whether citizens had been born in the U.S., in U.S. territories or in other countries.

In 2004, the journal Migration News prognosticated the possibility that "by 2050, today's racial and ethnic categories will no longer be in use." History tells us that census classifications will continue to flow from the clash between political, social and individual power.


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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