The U.S. census form has evolved over 226 years. “Race is the oldest question we have in this country,” Ramirez said. “We asked it in our first census in 1790, and we have been asking it ever since, every 10 years in a different way and different shape, but consistently throughout.” “White” has been the only consistent racial term since August 1790, when marshals knocked on doors in the original 13 states and in the districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and the Southwest territory (Tennessee) to classify people as a “Free White Males” or “Free White Females,” “Slave,” or “All Other Free Persons.” The civil-rights era was a pivotal moment for how census data was used, Jones said. “Prior to that, the measurement of race and ethnicity in the census was often used, not for helping people, but to show how people can be differentiated,” he told me. “But from the 1960s onwards, the measurement was really used to address problems and concerns.” Today, it also serves to reapportion congressional seats and Electoral College votes.
A number of factors affect census results. Take, for example, an increase in ethno-racially mixed families. Among marriages in the United States, 15 percent are between people of different racial and ethnic origins, according to Richard Alba, a sociology professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Alba’s research also found that one in seven infants are born into an ethno-racially mixed family. “This is a really new and possibly important development because these are individuals who grow up in families that involve whites and minorities. They are truly straddling the dividing lines in American society,” he said. “We don’t really know enough about them to be able to say how they will identify themselves, how they will locate themselves within American society.”
In 1977, the Office of Management and Budget, which supervises the U.S. Census Bureau, issued a directive on racial and ethnic classification for federal statistics. Ethnicity—such as “Hispanic” and “not Hispanic”—was separate and distinct from the concept of race. As a result, the “Some Other Race” category captured a lot of Hispanics. Twenty years later, the OMB issued a fresh directive, allowing respondents to report more than one race on the 2000 census form. The racial categories available were: “White,” “Black, African-American or Negro,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” and “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.” The “Latino” classification was also introduced as an alternative phrasing for the “Hispanic” ethnic category. But the “Some Other Race” category, long part of the census, was not mentioned in the OMB directive. Instead, the Census Bureau decided to keep it to capture respondents who didn’t identify with any of the other categories provided.