Race and the U.S. Census: Are Racial Categories Racist?

To many, the very fact of a census taker asking “what race are you?” evokes a racist past that we’d like to move beyond.  Today in our week-long series on “Race and the U.S. Census,” I’ll consider some of the recent arguments about whether the census use of racial categories is, in itself, a form of racism.


(Photo by Ed Clark from here.)

Dr. Kelly, writing at CNN’s iReport website, argues strongly for the case that the categories themselves reinforce a greater valuation of “white” over “black” and that the whole notion of referring to people as colors is wrong-headed:

The reason we should not be referring to people as colors is because in our society, colors have meaning. The color white, for example, is associated with most things good (e.g., birth, weddings, angels, goodness, purity, virginity, etc.), and the color black is associated with most things bad (e.g., death, funerals, evil, bad luck, uncertainty, fear, etc.). In referring to people as colors, we are applying labels that subtly socialize individuals to associate being White with being good and being Black with being bad. The Census needs to set an example and stop referring to people as colors.

Meanwhile, some scholars and journalists have noted that the use of the word “negro” on the census form is offensive to some and should not be used in the 2010 count.   However, sociologist  Dr. L’Heureux Dumi Lewis has a different take:

I am all for rallying around a cause. I’m just not sure I can meet ya’ll down at the Census offices for a protest over Negro. Focus groups, lettering writing campaigns, and write ins suggest some of our older brothers and sisters still support the term. Let’s focus energy in creating greater political clout, not appropriate nomenclature.

Lewis goes on to point out three issues that are worth paying attention to, in his view, around the census (the counting of prisoners, who gets counted as white, and undercounts), and we’ll get to those later in the series.

The fact is, many observers are wary of the census when it comes to race.   Jillian C. York writes at the Global Voices Online blog that:

This year, there has been controversy in the Arab-American community over the question of race, because “Arab” is not included. Arabs are supposed to check “White” as their race, or can write in “Arab” or their chosen ethnicity (e.g., Syrian, Saudi), though they will still be counted as officially white. Maytha at Kabobfest believes that this is dis-empowering to Arab Americans…

The kind of push-back by Arab Americans that York notes is what has happened in the past with the census categories.  Part of the reason that the census categories change each ten years is that activists demand inclusion in the census.    And, every ten years, there are complaints from groups that are undercounted or left out of the census completely.

So, the question becomes then are these categories themselves problematic?   Is it better to count and include racial categories however flawed, or not count race at all?  We’ll explore these issues, and more, in coming installments in the series.


  1. Will

    Anyway youn slice it, everything comes down to race. Even if the racial categories are no longer counted, it will do little to change anything. It would sort of be another form of denial.

    This is just a thought:

    If they did eliminate race categories, they may do what most white employers do, look at the names. Sometimes all it takes it looking at the names of individuals to determine race. Although, it’s not 100% certain.

  2. distance88

    I recently filled out the Census, and I was surprised to see how it considers Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino all to be separate ‘races’. Isn’t this confusing ethnicity with race, or am I missing something? I mailed mine back already but as far as I recall, other ‘races’ weren’t parsed out in this manner..

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