The Atlantic

How Racial Data Gets 'Cleaned' in the U.S. Census

The national survey offers more identity choices than ever—until those choices get scrubbed away. An Object Lesson.
Source: Ross D. Franklin / AP

At a doctor’s visit, on a college-admissions application, or even in a consumer-marketing survey, Americans are regularly asked to classify themselves by race. Some protest this request by “declining to answer,” as forms often allow. After all, racial categories are social constructs. They don’t connote biological or genetic difference.

As an African American, I have never had difficulty knowing which box I am meant to check. Whether I do so depends on my understanding of why the information is being collected. Similar questionnaires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t afford such choice. At that time, before the current practice of self-identification, an enumerator or census taker would have visited my home and classified me as free or enslaved, and then determined whether I might be colored, mulatto, quadroon (one-quarter black), or octoroon (one-eighth).

While early racial data were gathered to feed an, and were even for internment during World War II, over time the Census Bureau settled on bureaucracy to explain its work. And yet, a simple count of the population remains ideologically loaded. These data are not neutral or objective information about the population. Instead they reflect changing political priorities and techniques to grasp how the country’s population is seen—and how resources are made available to them.

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