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Measuring Race And Ethnicity Across The Decades: 1790-2010

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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 [PDF], 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 [PDF] 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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Page Last Revised - October 8, 2021
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