Measuring Race And Ethnicity Across The Decades: 1790-2010

Written By: Beverly M. Pratt, Lindsay Hixson and Nicholas A. Jones

Over the years, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected information on race and ethnicity. The census form has always reflected changes in society, and shifts have occurred in the way the Census Bureau classifies race and ethnicity. Historically, the changes have been influenced by social, political and economic factors including emancipation, immigration and civil rights. Today, the Census Bureau collects race and ethnic data according to U.S. Office of Management and Budget guidelines, and these data are based on self-identification.

A new interactive visualization released today shows how race and ethnicity categories have changed over time since the first census in 1790. This allows us to better understand the relationship between historical classifications and the present time. A static version of this same visualization was presented in April 2015 at the Population Association of America’s annual meeting.

We created this interactive timeline to establish a starting point for the public — including community stakeholders, academics and data users — to understand how race and ethnicity categories have changed over 220 years in the decennial census. This understanding is important as we interpret results from the 2010 Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment and the current middecade testing of race and ethnicity questions, including the 2015 National Content Test. The National Content Test will inform design changes for collecting data on race and ethnicity in the 2020 Census and other ongoing demographic and economic surveys conducted by the Census Bureau.



What can we learn from this visualization?

Some categories appeared, were removed from the census form and then reappeared throughout history. For example, the “other race” category existed in some form from 1790 through 1840, then disappeared between 1850 and 1900, and then reappeared in 1910. In addition, the visualization shows that detailed Asian groups first became part of the census form in 1860 and that more detailed Asian groups were added, such as “Hindu,” in the 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses. We can also see when the Hispanic/Latino ethnicity category first appeared on the 1970 census sample form, while showing that in 1930, the category “Mexican” was used as a race.

Some race categories have changed while others have remained the same. The term “white” has been used since the very first census. In comparison, the descriptions of all other categories have changed and/or have been added over time.

Finally, our nation’s changing history is reflected in the categories. For example, after Alaska and Hawaii each received statehood in 1959, the 1960 Census saw the addition of the terms “Aleut,” “Eskimo” and “Hawaiian” for the first time.

How will the census form change in 2020 and beyond?

The Census Bureau is continually updating its approach to collecting, processing and categorizing all types of responses representing ethnic origins from nations around the world. The 2015 National Content Test, which is currently being conducted, will have dedicated areas so that people can report their specific nationality or ethnic origins in addition to providing responses to the standard OMB race and ethnic categories. This research and testing, along with continued input from our advisory committees and stakeholders, will ensure the 2020 Census form reflects how the U.S. population identify themselves.

Note: The terms displayed on the visualization have not been modified from their historical use.

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6 Responses to Measuring Race And Ethnicity Across The Decades: 1790-2010

  1. Daniel Grubbs says:

    You state that “these data are based on self-identification.” What about people who don’t identify as any “race”? There are many of us who don’t believe in “race” to begin with — we are not racists (i.e. people who believe in race.) Are we allowed self-identification?

    • U.S. Census Bureau says:

      An individual’s response to the race question is based upon self-identification. The Census Bureau does not tell individuals which boxes to mark or what heritage to write in. See more information here:

      • Daniel Grubbs says:

        Following the links to the OMB site, I find these instructions:

        –Respondents shall be offered the option of selecting one or more racial designations. Recommended forms for the instruction accompanying the multiple response question are “Mark one or more” and “Select one or more.”–

        There seems to be no option to choose “none of the above”, or better yet, not answer at all. I don’t “self-identify” as any race and my self-identification or lack thereof does not appear on your forms.

    • Ethnically Ambiguous Libertarian says:

      I think the point the US Census Bureau is failing to make is that they are not telling you to choose a “race” so much as “race OR ethnicity”; it is worded “and” not “or” but it ought to be “or.”

      I think the point you are failing to understand, Mr. Grubbs, is that everyone has at least 1 “ethnicity” their family came from; outside of the rare and bizarre instance of Rachel Dolezal, ethnicity is something we are left to choose how to identify. No matter what you choose to identify as, you will have at least one ethnic group you can trace your family roots back to–we all do. My sister: her father (not mine) was half Portuguese and half French. Our mother is English, German, and Dutch heritige. My sister identifies as “Portuguese.” Her husband is Chinese. Born and raised in Hong Kong. They have two grown children. One identifies as “Chinese and white” and the other identifies as “mixed” but if asked to break it down she’ll say “Portuguese, Chinese, white…” Why does it matter? Because when tracking how one group vs. another is being marginalized or seems to be earning more privilages in America the only way to know how the tide of fairness is shifting is if we can identify how many people of each group identify with a particular group and then what the rest of their answers add up to. For example: there was recently a major shift in the economic balance (or lack there of) in San Francisco, California. The cost of living was always higher than average, but it recently became the most expensive place to live in America, even surpassing Manhattan. On the most recent “race and ethnicity” census data you can see that while 75% of Americans identify as “white non-Hispanic” and a full 80% identify as “white” but only 13% identify as “black” and even fewer identify as “Asian” the population of San Francisco’s black and Hispanic communities made a major exodus out of SF over the past 20 years, while the white population has trickled out (nearly as many have left, but the new transplants are mostly white and Asian), and only the Asian population has shot up through the roof. Why there has been such a significant shift in SF’s ethnic diversity is a matter of concern, and we can only learn clues to the problems that lead to these situations and investigate possible solutions so the nation (and San Francisco) can remain, encourage, and improve ethnic and cultural diversity instead of becoming a land of overpriced coffee houses and $5,000 a month 1 bedroom apartments filled with nothing but White and Asian techies and all the black and Hispanic people in the city by day are low wage workers commuting in from Baypoint and beyond at the great expense of their families.

      You did not materialize from grey matter, sir. Simply figure out where all your ancestors came from according to your parents or adoption records then decide what YOU see in the mirror and what box or boxes you feel most comfortable checking off. it might make your community a better place in the future when the data is used appropriately.

    • shawn brooks says:

      Those people are put into the category of “unicorn” and/or “snowflake” and praised for the unique color blind bravery.

  2. Miss Denise Cheryl Willis says:

    Thank you very much for the chart. However, when I printed it out, I could barely see the race boxes. I would like to view that again.

    I really get tired of hearing Americans says “Race does not matter. That was a long time ago.” Too many are still confused about their racial identity and they cause all kinds of harm in families, in friendships, in relationships, at work, at church etc.
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had a great election day yesterday. Thank you very much!

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