The race question


The census only happens once every ten years and the data received from the count goes towards funding communities, shaping political districts and defining demographics. Thus, obtaining an accurate count is crucial. This article, part two in a three-part series, explores the race and ethnicity questions in the census.

The history of the census is nothing if not fraught.

Article I Section 2 of the United States Constitution mandates a census count each decade on the year zero. The first census was conducted in 1790 and asked for the name, head of family and number of people living in each household broken down to represent the number of free white males 16 and older, free white males younger than 16, free white females, all other free persons and slaves. The count totaled 3.9 million.

Census questions changed over the years and accentuated different issues as society changed. The 1890 census was the first to ask about race with options such as Japanese, Chinese, Negro, Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon and White. Quadroon referred to a person one quarter black by descent, Octoroon one eighth black by descent.

Just as questions changed through the years, the status of people of color did as well. Enslaved African Americans were counted as three fifths of a person. Native Americans were not counted at all until 1880 and the enumeration of taxed and untaxed—living off or on a reservation, respectively—Native Americans was not part of the census until 1890.

Each decade seemed to offer a tweak in response to a changing society. Individuals were able to fill out the census on their own for the first time in 1960. Before then, census workers appointed by the federal government were required to go to every residence and fill out the questionnaire on citizens’ behalf.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which oversees elements of the Executive Branch including regulatory measures that mandate the census, outlines how the census must report on race and ethnicity.

OMB requires five minimum race categories: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White. The two ethnicities required by OMB are ‘Hispanic or Latino’ and ‘not Hispanic or Latino’. Write-in boxes beneath these questions ask responders to identify racial origins. For example, a person identifying as African American could write Nigerian in the box below.

OMB’s 1997 Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity created these five race categories through consideration of public comment and an advisory Interagency Committee. These categories allowed people to provide a mixed-race submission for the first time in 2000.

Race is defined by the census as a social group and ethnicity as a measure to determine Hispanic origin. Additionally, in the Revisions document, race is classified as a social-political construct, a way to classify people socially, not scientifically.

The race question has been contemplated since its addition in 1890. The 1997 OMB decision aimed to make the question answerable for all, but that did not necessarily make it any clearer. Modern suggestions may fall along the same line.

In 2017, the Census Bureau recommended the OMB transition Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin into the race category, consolidating the two race/ethnicity questions into one race question. A new race category for those identifying as Middle Eastern and North African was suggested, but OMB did not respond in time for these changes to be made for the 2020 census.

Another suggestion for the 2020 census proposed by the Trump Administration involved adding a citizenship question to the census. This was rejected by the Supreme Court in June 2019. The point of the census is to get a count of all people living in the U.S., the Court would discuss, not looking for who is American and who is not.

“The District Court concluded that…the reinstatement of a citizenship question would result in noncitizen households responding to the census at lower rates than other groups, which in turn would cause them to be undercounted and lead to many of the injuries respondents asserted—diminishment of political representation, loss of federal funds, degradation of census data and diversion of resources,” the Court’s opinion read.

“That’s not what we’re trying to find out,” Caitlin Quisenberry, programming and events manager at the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, said. She believes the citizenship question debate has caused damage in the way people perceive the census, and it would not have been the first time this perception was damaged.

During World War II, the Second War Powers Act required government agencies to open information, including confidential information, in light of national security. Around 120,000 Japanese Americans were subsequentially wrongfully incarcerated by the use of their addresses found in the census, according to Margo Anderson, distinguished professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin and census historian.

As mentioned in part one, Title 13—passed in 1954—ensures that personal information remains private and cannot be shared with other governmental agencies. Despite this protection, unease about the use of census information remains for some.

All this history makes it clear that the census is imperfect. However, it is the tool we have to promote equal employment opportunities, assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks, establish federal affirmative action guidelines and get to know our communities better, all while working to receive accurate funding and political representation based on population.

Big Sky Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to getting a complete census count. The Chamber will mail a $10 Walmart gift card to responders if they email Quisenberry a confirmation of census completion. Email

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