|Articles, Census/Demographics, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2014-08-17 22:47Z by Steven|
Brian Palmer, Chief Explainer
How the government developed its racial-classification system.
For the first time in history, more than half of American children under the age of 1 are members of a minority group, according to figures released Wednesday by the Census Bureau. Everyone is familiar with the federal government’s classification of race and ethnicity—white, black or African-American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Why did we settle on these particular groupings?
Because they track discrimination. Officials from the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for maintaining the nation’s racial-classification system, have always admitted that the categories have no scientific or anthropological basis. They were designed in the 1970s to help track compliance with civil rights laws, and are meant to identify groups that are vulnerable to discrimination. There are other considerations, as well. The geographic nature of the categories—aside from Hispanic, which has always been the most nebulous because of its linguistic basis—are supposed to make it reasonably easy for Americans to identify their own backgrounds. Individual federal agencies may choose to split up the OMB categories for more detailed data. The Census Bureau, for example, breaks “Asian” into several subgroups, such as Asian Indian, Chinese, and Filipino.
Our modern racial-classification system is far from the first in U.S. history. The federal government asked about race indirectly (are you a slave or a free man?) in the inaugural census from 1790—although more for the purposes of the “Three-Fifths Compromise” than to prevent discrimination. In addition, early American law limited citizenship to whites, so the census had to distinguish between whites and everyone else. (African-Americans became eligible for citizenship in 1868, Native Americans in 1924, and Asian-Americans in 1954.) As people of different backgrounds intermarried and interbred, the government’s attempts to delineate people by race became increasingly tortured. For example, the 1890 census categories were white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian. (Census takers carried detailed instructions on how to explain the groupings.) Race categories continued to vary for most of the 20th century. The 1920 census listed the races as “White, Black, Mulatto, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, Korean, and Other.” The 1960 census used different terminology, listing “White, Negro, American Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Other.”…
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