The 'race' question on the U.S. census is racist.
Why this is so and what to answer instead.
By Bob Curtis
You read that right. The question of race on the U.S. census is in itself racist,
not to mention meaningless in a purely scientific sense.
Consider the following points which should make it clear why I believe this to be true.
- Argument: Point One
The question of race on the U.S. Census has extremely racist beginnings.
According to the FAQ on the
U.S. Census Bureau website,
"the Census Bureau has included a question on race since the first census in 1790,"
(which they somehow seem to think justifies the continuation of this census question -
we've been doing it for two hundred ten years, so it must be right?).
What they fail to mention - very obviously on purpose - is why race data was collected in the first census in 1790 and thereafter.
In order to illustrate to you the answer they are purposely avoiding, let's look at the U.S. Constitution as ratified in 1787.
Article I, section 2 states, among other things,
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union,
according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including
those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Of course, "all other Persons" included mainly slaves.
In other words, in order to establish representation in the House of Representatives, free men were counted as one person,
and slaves were counted as three fifths of a person! Thus, the "race" question on the Census started as a tool of racism.
As stated in the book American Government: People, Institutions, and Policies,
The Great Compromise dealt with the representation [in Congress] of slaves in a very subtle way.
The northerners knew that the southerners would demand some counting of slaves in determining a state's representation,
but few southerners were audacious enough to claim that slaves, who could not vote, should be counted the same as free persons.
It was decided that all free persons, excluding "Indians not taxed," would count as citizens for the purposes of representation
in the House. However... "all other persons," such as slaves, counted three fifths.
The three-fifths compromise was adopted without much controversy.
(It should possibly be noted that, although most northern representatives to the Constitutional Convention
were extremely opposed to slavery - including such notable people as Benjamin Franklin -
they chose to compromise to keep the political ties between the states solid,
hoping to tackle the slavery issue at a later time when they hoped the union would be stronger; however,
whether this plan was justified is not within the scope of this treatise.)
Furthermore, Colleen Monahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health states on her
Evolution of the Census web page,
The original census included only three questions: color, free or slave status and the sex of free white persons.
(Thus, the origins of the census were sexist in nature, too! Since even free women could not vote, they didn't legally count either.)
It should be clear from this evidence that the question of race, as asked on the first Census and thereafter,
was a question to determine the representational status
of an individual based on whether they were free men (i.e. in general "white"), a slave ("black") or "Indians not taxed" (non-citizen natives).
Thus, the very beginnings of the race question on the Census were extremely racist in nature.
However, the racist usage of the Census ended with neither slavery nor women's
The Census Bureau claims on their FAQ page that,
The numbers we publish are combined with thousands of answers
from people in your neighborhood and across the country. No one, except
sworn Census Bureau employees, can see your questionnaire or link your
name with your responses. In fact, the law provides severe penalties
for any census employee that makes your answers known.
This may give you a warm, fuzzy feeling about your data being protected from prying eyes - but it shouldn't.
Consider what Colleen Monahan goes on to explain on her
Evolution of the Census web page,
Though standards exist to
maintain the privacy of those being enumerated, data from the census
can be and has been misused. Most notably, census data was used during
the Civil War to identify the number of free and slave African-Americans
prior to General Sherman's March to the Sea campaign and during
World War II to identify the location of Japanese-Americans in the United States.
David Kopel concurs in his article
The Federal Leviathan is Counting on You, stating,
Back in 1940, American citizens of Japanese ancestry dutifully supplied their race
and national origin on the census forms. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, the government
decided to start putting American citizens of Japanese descent, who lived on the West
Coast, into concentration camps. (Colorado Governor Ralph Carr allowed many
Japanese-Americans to move to Colorado instead of going to President Roosevelt's
internment camps.) The 1940 census data was used to find out which neighborhoods in
California, Oregon, and Washington had a high percentage of Japanese-Americans, so that
federal agents would know where to go to round up people.
(Note: in 2007, the charges against the U.S. Census Bureau in this matter
has been made even worse:
U.S. Department of Commerce documents have confirmed that not only the neighborhoods
but the NAMES AND ADDRESSES of many Americans of Japanese descent were provided
to the Secret Service and perhaps other agencies during WWII,
according to the Scientific American article,
Confirmed: The U.S. Census Bureau Gave Up Names of Japanese-Americans in WWII.)
The Japanese-Americans that Monahan and Kopel speak of were singled out,
forced to rid themselves of their property (in many cases at a severe loss)
and move to internment (a.k.a. concentration) camps. As reported in the
San Francisco Chronicle on May 21, 1942
(from the Museum of the City of San Francisco's
Internment of San Francisco Japanese web page),
It was in 1850 — more than 90 years ago — that the first
Japanese came to San Francisco, more than four years before Commodore Perry
engineered the first trade treaty with Japan. The first arrival was one Joseph Heco, a
castaway, brought here by his rescuers...
...In 1861, the second
Japanese came here. Five years later, seven more arrived. The next year there were 67,
and from then on migration boomed. By 1869 there was a Japanese colony at Gold Hill near
Sacramento. In 1872 the first Japanese Consulate opened in San Francisco – an office that
passed through many hands, many regimes, and many policies before December 7, 1941.
On that fateful day, according to census records, there were 5,280 Japanese in San
They [the Japanese] left San Francisco by the hundreds all through last January and February, seeking
new homes and new jobs in the East and Midwest. In March, the Army and the Wartime
Civil Control Administration took over with a new humane policy of evacuation to assembly
and relocation centers where both the country and the Japanese could be given
protection. The first evacuation under the WCCA came during the first week in April, when
hundreds of Japanese were taken to the assembly center at Santa Anita. On April 25 and
26, and on May 6 and 7, additional thousands were taken to the Tanforan Center. These
three evacuations had cleared half of San Francisco. The rest were cleared yesterday.
These last Japanese registered here last Saturday and Sunday. All their business was to
have been cleaned up, all their possessions sold or stored. Yesterday morning, at the
Raphael Weill School on O'Farrell Street, they started their ride to Tanforan. Quickly,
painlessly, protected by military police from any conceivable "incident," they climbed into
the six waiting special Greyhound buses.
Thus even in the 20th century, while the world battled fascism in Europe and Asia, the answers to the race question
on the U.S. Census were being used to commit wholesale discrimination against a certain group of U.S. citizens.
(As a side note, if the Census Bureau really wanted to make sure that no one could
"link your name with your responses," then there would have provided two separate census forms to be returned by separate envelopes:
one with the number and names of people in your household, and another with the demographic questions - but that's a different issue.)
- Argument: Point Two
The question of race is also moot; it has no real meaning whatsoever.
To begin with, the idea of race is subjective.
Ask two random people to describe what a "black" person is physically like,
and you'll get two, sometimes similar but often quite different, answers.
Ask those people to define what a "Native American" looks like, and again you'll get different answers.
Let's look at this another way. By most people's standards I am a "white" person.
I do have somewhat pale skin, but it's actually more of a yellowish pink color rather than "white."
Others of my friends who would also be considered to be "white" have either darker or lighter skin than mine,
or skin of differing shades of yellowish pink. Are they, then, of a different race?
Skin color is not the only physical trait by which people differ, so why is skin color used to classify race?
Wouldn't using eye color be just as valid of a 'race' indicator?
Using eye color, we could separate the "blues" from the "browns" from the "grays,"
making me and Michael Jordan members of the "brown eyed" race.
Silly? Yes, it is, but no more than using skin color as a classification feature.
As the book The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology states,
...the lack of agreement among different researchers indicates that the entire concept of race is arbitrary
as it applies to humans. If clearly discernible races existed,
their number should have long since been determined without argument.
How useful is a classification system when there is so much disagreement about the number of units?
...Many racial classifications in Western societies use skin color as a major distinguishing feature.
The races correspond to different measures of skin color -- "white," "yellow," "red," "brown," and "black" for example.
We know, however, that skin color does not fall into 5, or even 50, different
Skin color is a continuous variable.
This means that any attempt to divide the continuous range into discrete units (races) is going to arbitrary.
Further along this line of logic, the idea of race is absurd in any true scientific meaning.
In their Statement on "Race",
the American Anthropological Association (a group of scientists devoted to investigating
the biological, cultural and technological variation and evolution of humans) states, in part,
In the United States both scholars and the general public have been
conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within
the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast
expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become
clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated,
biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g.,
DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within
so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic "racial" groupings differ
from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is
greater variation within "racial" groups than between them. In
neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their
phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different
groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing
of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single
(View the entire statement here.)
Similarly, the book The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology states,
What is wrong with classifying people into races? After all, we can do it accurately. Or can we?
A major problem with the race concept is that scientists have never agreed on the number of human races.
How many can you name or see? Some have suggested that there are three human races: Europeans, Africans and Asians...
But many populations do not fit neatly into these three basic categories. What about native Australians?
...these are dark-skinned people who frequently have curly or wavy hair that is sometimes blond and who have abundant facial hair.
On the basis of skin color, we might be tempted to label these people as African, but on the basis of hair and facial shape they might
be labeled as European...
Biological variation is real; the order we impose on this variation by using the concept of race is not.
Race is a product of the human mind, not of nature.
The confusing nature of this issue can be seen within the Census Bureau itself,
by looking at their worthless struggle to define race into accurate categories.
This struggle is itself an indication of the arbitrary nature of the concept of race.
Read, for example, these rather confusing statements from their
FAQ page, which state,
On October 30, 1997 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
issued "Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal
Data on Race and Ethnicity." All federal agencies, including the Census
Bureau, who collect and report data on race and ethnicity must follow
these standards. Race and ethnicity are considered to be two separate
and distinct concepts in this standard, and OMB accepted the
Interagency Committee for the Review of the Racial and Ethnic Standards
recommendation that two separate questions -- one for race and one
for ethnicity or Hispanic origin -- be used whenever feasible to provide
flexibility and ensure data quality.
In Census 2000, like in the 1990 census, the Hispanic origin question has
a write-in line which is used to obtain write-in responses of
Hispanic subgroups other than the major groups of Mexican, Cuban, and
Puerto Ricans. Persons with other Hispanic origins such as
Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Argentinean, and so on, will be able to write in
their specific origin group. In fact, the Census Bureau's code list
contains over 30 Hispanic or Latino subgroups. For Census 2000 maximum
detail on Hispanic subgroups will be made available in micro data
files while data products containing tabulations will report less detail information.
They obviously realized that saying someone is of "Hispanic" origin was different than saying they were of a certain "race,"
as there is a full spectrum of variation in skin color (and other physical attributes) among Hispanic people.
This seems almost forward thinking, until you ask yourself why people who are
descended from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, etc.
are not broken down into countries of origin for the census?
It is probably beyond the scope of this treatise to tackle this issue,
but suffice it to say it is probably some sort of racially based discrimination.
(Perhaps you can ask the INS...???)
The Census Bureau FAQ page goes on to say,
In October 1997 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued
revised federal standards for collecting and presenting data on
race and ethnicity. Among other changes, the standards allow respondents
when answering the race question option to "mark or select one or
more races." The OMB made this modification after considering recommendations
from its Interagency Committee for the Review of Racial and
Ethnic Standards, information obtained through public hearings and other
sources of public opinion, and test results from the Census Bureau and
other federal agencies.
In the 1996 Census Survey, the Census Bureau tested revisions to the
questionnaire that would allow multiple responses to the race question.
There was no evidence that any of these experimental treatments had a
negative effect on the final mail response rates. Also, we do not expect
the instruction "mark one or more" to significantly affect reporting of
race, because fewer than two percent of respondents in recent tests used
So, you can identify with more than one race (for instance "Asian Indian" and "Black"),
but they say this won't affect the results. Why is that, exactly?
Two percent of the U.S. population is a pretty significant number!
One would think that such a large number of those who would choose all that apply would skew the census results,
even if slightly and even more so in states where high numbers of such people live.
The answer to this is most likely because anyone choosing multiple racial identities
will be considered "black" for statistical purposes. Charles Michael Byrd of
Interracial Voice, in his treatise
Census 2000 Protest: Check American Indian!, states,
[On the Census form w]e will have... ...the "politically correct" version of the old
"one drop rule." The "politically correct" version goes by the name: check all
that apply. Individuals who can claim African heritage and who
check the "black" or "African-American" box on the 2000 Census -- even if they also
check a second or third box -- will be reported solely as
"black" or "African-American." So much for not being monoracially pigeonholed.
Further confusing this issue is someone like myself.
While someone looking at me might say I am "white," I might consider myself a "European-American."
But even that description isn't accurate in my case.
In my heritage I am, among other things, of "German," "Italian," "British," "French" and "Native American" decent.
But I don't see German, Italian, British, French or Native American on the Census form?
How am I to accurately display my "racial" identity using the check all that apply rule?
This of course brings me to the term "American Indian" as used on the Census form.
Who falls into that category?
Is an "American Indian" someone who is originally from India and now lives in America?
Or are we still falsely referring to those of aboriginal American descent as "Indians?"
The Census Bureau FAQ
page continues to illustrate the totally subjective nature of the race question, saying,
Each respondent decides his or her racial identity. For the first time
ever, people with mixed racial heritage may select more than one racial
category. The groups shown in the census race question can be collapsed into
the minimum race categories needed by the federal government:
"White," "Black or African American," "American Indian and Alaska Native,"
"Asian," and "Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander."
People who mark the American Indian or Alaska Native category are asked
to provide the name of their principal or enrolled tribe. People who
select the "Other Asian," "Other Pacific Islander," or "Some other race"
are asked to write-in their specific race.
What? So not only is racial identification arbitrary when one person is defining it,
but in the census each person gets to choose their own racial identity! Thus, the race question is subjective to the extreme -
it's both arbitrary AND inconsistent with any sort of established rule!
So, while the Census Bureau has attempted to create defined racial categories,
there can be no consistency in the results.
Thus, scientifically speaking, the idea of "race" is invalid. The concept of race does exist,
but it is merely a socio-political construct created by millennia of xenophobia,
warfare and our natural desire to classify all things into a tidy, neat and easy
So, since the question of race is absolutely distasteful, what should your answer be to the "race" question?
You are required by law to return your census, after all, and despite all I've said here the census is used
for the Constitutionally valid purpose of determining Congressional representation and voter districting for each state
(as outlined by the Constitution in
Article I, section 2
and modified by Amendment 14, section 2),
so we should all do our Constitutional duty and fill out the number of people in our household as accurately as possible.
On the other hand, to choose an answer among the government's so-called racial categories is obviously scientifically bogus,
an invasion of our privacy and something that could be used against us or those we care about at a later date.
As Steve Dasbach, national chairman of the Libertarian Party, states in a
July 10, 1997 press release,
Every single American can strike a blow for a colorblind society by saying 'no' to the census takers and
'no' to racial classifications," Dasbach said. "We're all Americans -- what else does the government need
Therefore, in my mind there are only three valid responses I can think of that you should consider as your answer to the question of your race.
answer nothing; leave the question blank.
answer "human" in the Some other race answer block.
answer "Homo sapien" in the Some other race answer block
(while not actually the name of our race, this is the scientific name for the human species;
the scientific name for modern humans is actually Homo sapien sapiens,
but unfortunately I don't think that will fit on the form).
Please keep in mind that you may get a visit or call from the Census Bureau if you do not fill out your census forms completely,
and there may even be a fine ($100 according to the World Net Daily article
US Incensed Over Census and verified by the About.com article
Census Answers Are Required by Law) if you refuse to fill it out.
If you choose to join this protest, I want you to do so knowing the possible annoyances and consequences.
On the other hand, remember that our revolutionary mothers and fathers gambled and often gave up all they had (including their lives) in the defense of freedom,
so you have to ask yourself if the small annoyance of a Census Bureau visit and/or a $100 fine is really all that much of a sacrifice?
If Census Bureau employees do come to your door, hand them a copy of this treatise! :)
* * * * *
Update: By the way, I was neither visited nor fined by the Census Bureau regarding my lack of answers on the 2000 Census.
Back to my Constitution Page
American Government: People, Institutions, and Policies, Third Edition, Johnson et. al., pg. 43,
Copyright 1994, Houghton Mifflin Company (ISBN 0-395-66714-3).
The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology, Second Edition, Relethford, pgs. 165-167,
Copyright 1994, Mayfield Publishing Company (ISBN 1-55934-206-4).
U.S. Census Bureau website
American Anthropology Association website
Statement on "race".
Evolution of the U.S. Census.
The Federal Leviathan is Counting on You.
Charles Michael Byrd's treatise
Census 2000 Protest: Check American Indian!
Article I, section 2,
as ratified September 17th, 1787.
S.F. CLEAR OF ALL BUT 6 SICK JAPS,
article from the San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 1942 as presented on the Museum of the City of San Francisco website.
Libertarian Party urges nationwide boycott of government's "official" racial categories,
press release, July 10, 1997.
Additional Reading and Commentary
AAPA Statement on Biological Aspects of Race.
Yahoo! Full Coverage: Census Debate.
Satirical Census Advertisement (250KB).
Wikipedia: US Census.
Wikipedia: Race (US Census).
Wikipedia: Ethnicity (US Census).
The Unhyphenated American.
Will The 2000 Census Hurt Blacks?.
US Incensed Over Census.
Lengthy Survey Asks 53 Questions.
Some white Americans shun the census over privacy, fear of government.
Civics Lessons in the Census.
Who Counts? by Margo J. Anderson and Stephen E. Fienberg
The American Census: A Social History by Margo J. Anderson
Margo J. Anderson, Ph.D, Professor American History, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Census Too Nosy? Don't Answer Invasive Questions, GOP Suggests.
The Census Scam.
Challenge to Census Bureau Planned.
Senseless count adds up to intrusion.
Census lands in middle of a privacy backlash.
Census 2000 too nosey? Republicans criticize long-form questions.
Privacy May Affect Census Response.
Census Suit Raises Privacy Questions.
Senate Wants No Fines For Not Completing Census.
Census 'Long Forms' Unevenly Distributed.
To count all the people we need to feed.
US Census Bureau Says Privacy Concerns Hurting Some Returns.
Census to Start Hardest Job: Opening 42 Million Doors.
Hiring of ex-convict stuns Census Bureau.
Questions on 2000 Census form don't violate privacy, judge rules.
Enumerators resort to getting information from neighbors.
New Monthly Survey Promoted To Replace Census Long Form.
Note: This addresses the issue, but only adds complexity and fixes nothing in regard to privacy concerns.
Lawmaker faults 16 Census offices..
Feds implement perpetual census.
'Minority Groups' Have Outgrown Their Labels (free registration required).
Copyright © 2013 By Bob Curtis
Places Where This Article Has Been Republished Or Linked
- Yahoo! Full Coverage: Census Debate.
- The Abolitionist Examiner.
- Interracial Voice.
- Google Web Directory.
- Geoffrey Fox Weblog.
- The Unhyphenated American.