Kurt Metzger | The Census is coming. Racial controversy is never far behind

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About this column

This is the first of a series of regular columns about the decennial Census from Kurt Metzger, one of Michigan’s top demographers. The columns will answer issues and questions about the U.S. Census Bureau. If you have a question, email jkurth@bridgemi.com


The census is as old as America. And so are controversies about it.

Indeed, the history of the census in the United States charts the relationship between the government and its citizenry, ideas about race and identity, in what makes an individual an American – and all the ways a person can count.

Censuses occur amid internal and external crises, shifts in cultural interests and events that become "defining moments" for each generation. Census data reflect the growth of the population as well as the changing values and interests of the American people.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that, as the decennial count begins April 1, questions remain about the census’ treatment of race, particularly as it relates to those of Middle Eastern or Arab American descent, whose population is estimated at some 500,000 in Michigan.

Despite efforts by community leaders to include a MENA category — Middle Eastern North African — in this year’s count, the U.S. Census Bureau will continue to identify those residents as whites or “other,” unless they write in their ethnicity.

Arab American leaders are disappointed, saying the decision marginalizes them and could cost their communities a fair share of the $1.5 trillion in federal funds allocated to local and state governments. It’s not the only issue involving race in the history of the census, as categories have evolved and definitions changed from year to year in accordance with social trends.

Kurt Metzger

Kurt Metzger is the mayor of Pleasant Ridge, a demographer and founder of Data Driven Detroit, a firm that analyzes data to inform public policy.

Early Census forms were short and simple, gathering only basic demographic data. Over the years, the census expanded to include more questions, as the country itself expanded and the population grew and became more diverse. The 2020 Census questionnaire will replicate that of 2010 (and be similar to the early census forms) in being the shortest in history – nine questions covering household relationship, age and date of birth, gender, race, Hispanic origin and housing tenure (owned or rented).  Information regarding educational attainment, employment, place of birth, number of rooms, housing value, etc. is collected through the American Community Survey, a separate ongoing count by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since the first census in 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected data using a census "schedule," also called a "questionnaire." Between 1790 and 1820, U.S. marshals conducting the census were responsible for supplying paper and writing-in headings related to the questions asked (i.e., name, age, sex, race, etc.). In 1830, Congress authorized the printing of uniform schedules for use throughout the United States.

The first census sorted population into “free white males and females,” “other free persons” and “slaves.” By 1860, there were separate questionnaires for enslaved and free inhabitants. The race options for both were “White,” “Black” and “Mulatto.” By 1870, all “slave” questions were eliminated and “Chinese,” (covering all East Asians) and “American Indian” were added to the race question. [It took 80 years from the first census to acknowledge those who settled our country.]  During the Jim Crow era, the census was used to identify specific levels of African ancestry or “black blood.” The 1890 census did so by adding the categories of “Quadroon” and “Octoroon.” “Japanese” was also added.  

The 1910 Census added an “Other Race” option.  In 1930, the Census Bureau added “Filipino,” “Hindu” (which disappeared in 1950) and “Korean,” as well as “Mexican” (which disappeared in 1940).  Statehood for Alaska and Hawaii in 1959 brought additions to the race question in 1960 — “Hawaiian,” “Part Hawaiian,” “Eskimo” and “Aleut.” The 1970 Census retained only the “Hawaiian” category.

The 1980 Census brought the large changes to the race question by bringing back “Eskimo” and “Aleut,” and adding “Vietnamese,” “Asian Indian,” “Samoan” and “Guamanian.” 

In 1950, the U.S. Congress passed a law making the people of Guam American citizens. Guam is not a state but is a U.S. territory.

For most censuses, people had to select a single racial or ethnic category to define themselves.  In 2000, for the first time, people were allowed to self-identify with one or more races, an acknowledgement of America’s growing multiculturalism.  Another first for the 2000 census was the inclusion of a separate question on Hispanic or Latino ancestry. Not considered a race itself, respondents who answered “Yes” were asked to declare whether “Mexican,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban,” or “Other Spanish.”

The 2020 Census will continue separate “Latino” and “Race” questions, allow for multiple race entries and allow those who answer “White” or “African American” to write in an ethnicity (Irish, Lebanese, Haitian, Nigerian, etc.), Native Americans to write in an enrolled tribe, Asian and Pacific Islanders to detail a category not already listed (Pakistani, Cambodian, Tongan, Fijian, etc.), and those who identify with a totally different race to write that in as well

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Kevin Grand
Thu, 02/20/2020 - 7:29am

It's rather pathetic that a process which was initiated in order to better apportion congressional representation, has mutated into a system that not only fragments our country by dividing its citizens into hyphenated groups (the negative reasons behind that is an interesting read in and of itself), but without any authority whatsoever, also wants to pry into the personal aspects of American's daily lives.

Where you were born, what your educational background is, how many rooms are in your home, how many bathrooms you have along with the litany of irrelevant questions , has absolutely no bearing on Congressional representation .

EXACTLY how that came about the the new normal in the census questionnaire would be a very interesting piece to read.

Fri, 02/21/2020 - 10:47am

You can leave portions of your census blank, your paranoid dweeb. Collecting demographic data through the census is one of the few ways to derive meaningful nationwide longitudinal data

Ren Farley
Thu, 02/20/2020 - 8:40am

This is an excellent desceiption of how the Census has used a variety of racial terms.
Thank you very much for this informative essay

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 11:25am

Great hearing from you, Kurt. Appreciate the history lesson.

Steve Gold
Thu, 02/27/2020 - 9:33am

As always, Kurt, your well-informed commentary is greatly appreciated. I'd add that the MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) category) was tested for several years prior to 2016 as to its accuracy and utility, and would almost certainly have been a part of the upcoming Census if the Democratic Party candidate had won in the Electoral College. It will almost certainly be a feature of future Census products if the Democratic candidate (whether Bernie or any of his rivals) wins in November. For those who don't regularly use Census data, know that the Census Bureau continually collects data and produces or updates reports during the inter-Censal years - nothing as comprehensive as the Census itself, but still very valuable. To have MENA ethnicity data, just as we currently have Hispanic/Latinx data, would certainly benefit Michigan and other states with large populations of persons originating from those parts of the world. This is just one more reason to vote for a candidate who values Americans of color as highly as they value other Americans.