U.S. Census

Last week, chants of “send her back!” at President Donald Trump’s rally in North Carolina sent bipartisan chills through the spines of elected officials and voters alike.

The remarks directed at freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the first member of Congress to wear a hijab, are the latest blemish in the United States’ long, painful struggle over diversity.

For decades, the census has failed to lead the way. Our country’s racial divide is on display every 10 years. Long before Trump, we lacked civility on paper.

The United States Census Bureau maintains an online repository of every index of questions. Since the first census in 1790, the tone of how we count and characterize people of different descents is a legacy more loathsome than the president’s recent rhetoric.

The process is akin to a game of demographic chess. Flash back to:

1790, when “free White males” and “free White females” were recorded separately from “other free persons” and “slaves”;

Or 1850, when the term “color” first appeared on the census. Whites were able to leave it blank, while blacks wrote in “B” or mulattos wrote in “M”;

Or 1870, when “C” for Chinese was added as a blanket term for all east Asian countries;

Or 1890, when “color” was changed to “race” and “quadroon” or “octoroon” — two slavery-era terms — were used to describe people of one-quarter or one-eighth African heritage;

Or 1900, when “race” was changed to “color or race”;

Or 1950, when “color or race” was changed back to “race”;

Or 1960, when “race” was adjusted back to “race or color”;

Or 2010, when “Black, African Am., or Negro” was still a choice. Late 1990s research by the Census Bureau suggested some older Americans self-identified as “Negro.” But after an outcry, the agency ceased using the term in 2013.

The census is more than an indicator of where we come from, or how we look. It’s the form determining the number of districts and depth of boundaries for political representation in our communities.

President Trump is well aware. In the White House Rose Garden earlier this month, he explained one argument for sharing citizenship data, saying: “Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter-eligible population.”

Alas, over the course of history, politics shaped changes in how we record race or citizenship on the census (and treat people). Rewind to:

1820, when a new question asked for the “Number of foreigners not naturalized.” A recent New York Times piece dissected the force behind the change: tensions with the British after the War of 1812.

Or 1870, when the final question asked: “Is the person a male citizen of the United States of 21 years or upwards whose right to vote is denied or abridged on grounds other than ‘rebellion or other crime?’” The passage of the 15th Amendment countered the new objective, but Southern states persisted with poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures to suppress the black vote.

Or 2016, when Congress and the Obama administration unanimously passed a resolution to amend the federal definition of “minorities.” In the 1970s, two bills established the term as “a Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut” or “a Spanish speaking individual of Spanish descent.” The new provision instead said “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, a Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American, or an Alaska Native.” For years, derogatory terms sat untouched and the census was complicit.

Beyond the new resolution or Trump’s election to the White House, something else happened right around the 2016 election. Two demographic trends emerged that our nation never saw before.

First, the white population in the U.S. fell for the first time. From 2015 to 2016, census figures showed a loss of 9,475 people. The following year, the U.S. recorded a loss of 31,516 whites.

Second, children younger than age 10 reached a diversity milestone. A Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program analysis of census data showed all age brackets from 0 to 9 were majority-minority for the first time. They’ll have greater immunity to our 400-year war over “black” and “white.”

Our grisly history of demeaning people on the census must end. The bureau’s mission is to be “the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy,” not one race. The framing of the questions we fill out should capture and champion a modern, diverse America.

— Chris Gentilviso

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