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Measurement of Race and Ethnicity in a Changing, Multicultural America

Abstract

It is well accepted that concepts of race, ethnicity, and ancestry are changing constructs that reflect the social, economic, and political climate of the times. Studying the history of the collection of data on race, place of birth, Hispanic origin, and ancestry in US decennial censuses provides a better understanding of the race and ethnic concepts currently in use for official federal statistics. This history can help guide the evolution of these concepts for research on alternative measurement approaches, future censuses, and future statistics. The purpose of this paper is threefold. The first objective is to provide a historical overview of race and ethnic measurement in US decennial censuses. The second and third objectives are to present Census Bureau plans to experiment with alternative approaches to measuring race and ethnicity in the 2010 Census and to discuss race and ethnic measurement issues for future decennial censuses.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    During the nineteenth century, racial classification in the academic community was primarily based upon the work of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Blumenbach, circa 1781, designated five races of man: Caucasian; Mongolian, American, Ethiopian; and Malayan—with Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian being the three principal races (Haller, 1971). In general, the racial classification systems used by the academic community during the nineteenth century do not appear to have had a direct impact upon the historical racial categories used in US decennial censuses. The exception being the introduction of “Mulatto,” “Quadroon,” and “Octoroon” as racial categories in the US decennial census.

  2. 2.

    The racial category of “Chinese” was included on the 1860 Census questionnaire in California only (US Census Bureau, 2002).

  3. 3.

    The racial category of “Japanese” was included on the 1870 Census questionnaire and on the 1880 Census questionnaire in California only (US Census Bureau, 2002).

  4. 4.

    There is also evidence that the 1920 Census was particularly flawed. For example, the census was, for the first and only time, conducted in January. Given the condition of rural roads in 1920, this might have led to a higher undercount in rural areas.

  5. 5.

    Note that the 1977 OMB race and ethnic standards maintain that ethnicity (“Hispanic” or “not Hispanic”) is a separate and distinct concept from race (“White,” “Black,” “American Indian or Alaskan Native,” or “Asian or Pacific Islander”). Therefore, individuals who are Hispanic may be of any race. This distinction also exists in the 1997 OMB race and ethnic standards.

  6. 6.

    The only groups that would seem to be not included would be the original inhabitants of Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. The OMB race and ethnic standards are silent as to the classification of American Indians who do not maintain “cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition.”

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Correspondence to Karen Humes.

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This report is released to inform interested parties of ongoing research and to encourage discussion of work in progress. Any views expressed on the statistical and methodological issues in this report are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the US Census Bureau.

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Humes, K., Hogan, H. Measurement of Race and Ethnicity in a Changing, Multicultural America. Race Soc Probl 1, 111 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-009-9011-5

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Keywords

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Hispanic origin
  • Ancestry
  • Measurement