History of Racial Classification in the US Census: 1790-2010

Every census from 1790 to the present has recognized the racial or color category of “white.” But there has been interesting variation over time in how census enumeration methods have placed people in this category. There also are interesting variations in how the data for whites are reported. The following are some selected points of interest I think are worth noting. (For more detail on these points, I list two sources I drew on at the end; they may be helpful for getting started.) While the census has alway recognized the race or color category of “white”, here are a few variations over time that I am aware of and that may be interesting to some:

1. Early censuses 1790-1820 had no instructions or set categories for how to enumerate “color” and there were no formal “schedules” or “forms” on which enumerators were required to list color. Enumerators used their own judgment about listing color in their records with no guidelines from the census. When the data were coded and tabulated, persons were treated as white by default if no other specific color was provided.

2. 1830 brought the first form in which there was a specific place for enumerators to list color. Still no guidelines from the census on how to enumerate people on color.

3. 1890 was the first census in which “white” was not the default coding if race was not mentioned in enumerator records (1790-1820) or was left blank on the form (1830-1880). In this census, white had to be specified on the form.

4. 1790-1950 the census enumerators made the judgment on color. Starting in 1960, the respondent made the judgment.

One interesting trend here is how Hispanics have ultimate been classified on race after 1950. The census instructions are clear that most persons of Hispanic background should be coded white under census coding guidelines. Through 1950, census enumerators followed those instructions. In the transition to self report, Hispanic respondents sometimes disregarded the census instructions and classified themselves as something other than white. The rate of doing so jumped sharply in 1970 and by 1980 exceeded 50%. It has stayed that high since.

This caused an appreciable drop in the white population in the Southwestern states from what it would have been had census practices of 1950 been continued.

5. Around the decades of high immigration — 1880-1930 – distinctions among whites were of great concern. Consequently, tabulations for whites were regularly broken out by native and foreign born due to the concerns about differences among native whites and new immigrants of the era. That practice was discontinued after 1940.

So, the word “white” has remained a constant. But how people are assigned to the category and how those data are reported has varied quite a bit over time.

Mark Fossett, Texas A&M University

For further information and other sources relating to these issues, see the following works.

Reynolds Farley. 1970. The Growth of the Black Population. Markham.

Joel Perlmann and Mary C. Waters (eds.). 2002. “The New Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Indivuals. Russell Sage Foundation.

Moving to ‘Whitopia’ and Fleeing Diversity

As I have written for some years now, the U.S. is moving rather rapidly to a much more diverse condition. Even a quick look at demographic data reveals the U.S. is rather rapidly becoming less white and more racially diverse. Whites are less than half the populations of Hawaii, New Mexico, California, and Texas. They are a minority in half the largest metropolitan areas. Over the next few decades they will become the statistical minority in the most populous states and all major metropolitan areas. No later than the 2040s Americans of color will be more than half the population. As we saw in the 2008 election an American of color was elected U.S. president substantially because he got the overwhelming majority of votes of African American, Asian American, Latino, and Native American voters. A substantial majority of white voters, in contrast, voted for his white Republican opponent. One significant question that these demographic changes raise is just how most whites will deal with this significant increase in racial-ethnic diversity in the future.

It is not just whites in white supremacist groups who worry about losing demographic position to those who are not white. Many other whites, leaders and ordinary citizens, frame these demographic changes as threatening. Interestingly, this concern with white population size relative to the racial others is not new, for the white racial frame has been concerned with such issues for centuries. Today, numerous prominent white analysts like Patrick Buchanan, a former Republican presidential candidate and media commentator, and Samuel Huntington, an influential Harvard social science professor, write from a strong white frame that accents the declining white percentage in the population as very negative for whites and the future of what they term “Western civilization.”

The American Prospect has an interesting summary piece by Rich Benjamin (see Jessie’s previous commentary on an interview with Benjamin here) on what he calls “whitopia,” the numerous places across the country where whites are fleeing in order to escape the diversity on the coasts and in big cities:

If so, you would join a growing number of white Americans homesteading in a constellation of small towns and so-called “exurbs” that are extremely white. They are creating communal pods that cannily preserve a white-bread world, a throwback to an imagined past with “authentic” 1950s values but with the nifty suburban amenities available today. . . . I call them Whitopias. . . . [These are] whiter than the nation, its respective region, and its state. It has posted at least 6 percent population growth since 2000. The majority of that growth (often upward of 90 percent) is from white migrants.

Benjamin quotes a number of whites as to why they are moving, with a general theme, as one put it, that “So many of the people that are here have come from areas where they have seen diversity done badly.” He also notes the work of Bill Frey (see here and here), who has for fifteen-plus years noted this white-flight phenomenon, work that I have also found preceptive and provocative. Benjamin also notes the pull of the whitopia areas, especially that they are already white:

The places luring so many white Americans are revealing. The five towns posting the largest white growth rates between 2000 and 2004 — St. George, Utah; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Bend, Oregon; Prescott, Arizona; and Greeley, Colorado — were already overwhelmingly white. … Americans associate a homogeneous white neighborhood with higher property values, friendliness, orderliness, cleanliness, safety, and comfort. …. Race is often used as a proxy for those neighborhood traits.

Actually the bits here about comfort and friendliness suggest that even Benjamin, an African American, is writing a bit unreflectively, indeed from a version of the white racial frame here. By “Americans,” he means white Americans, for overwhelmingly white neighborhoods can be decidedly unfriendly and uncomfortable (indeed hostile) to African Americans and other Americans of color. I was just in one such area this week lecturing, with some folks of color who do not exactly find the heavily white area comfortable.

Benjamin concludes noting the political implications I suggested above:

John McCain trounced Obama among white voters, 55 percent to 43 percent. Of the 245 U.S. counties that qualify as “exurbs,” McCain beat Obama in 209 of them, most often by double-digit margins.

Yet more evidence of just how racially polarized this “post-racial America” really is.