Should the Census Be Asking People if They Are Negro?





Use of the word Negro to describe a black person has largely fallen out of polite conversation — except on the U.S. Census questionnaire. There, under "What is this person's race?" is an option that reads, "Black, African Am., or Negro." That has raised the ire of certain black activists and politicians as the Census Bureau gears up to mail out its once-a-decade questionnaires. The controversy has been cast by many as an instance of a tone-deaf agency not keeping up with the times. In actuality, the flash point represents a much larger theme: the often contentious way the Census both reflects and forges our evolving understanding of race.

The immediate reason the word Negro is on the Census is simple enough: in the 2000 Census, more than 56,000 people wrote in Negro to describe their identity — even though it was already on the form. Some people, it seems, still strongly identify with the term, which used to be a perfectly polite designation. To blindly delete it is to risk incorrectly counting the unknown number of (presumably older) black Americans who checked the "black" box precisely because Negro was included.

But the Census Bureau is aware that times are changing — and not just when it comes to the word Negro. As part of the 2010 Census, the bureau will test 15 major changes to questions about race and Hispanic origin. For each, approximately 30,000 households will receive a slightly different questionnaire so that demographers and statisticians can use data — along with follow-up interviews — to decide if the modification helps or hurts the accuracy and consistency of information collected. "We hope this will help us better understand the way people identify with these concepts," says Nicholas Jones, chief of the Census' racial-statistics branch. One change being tested: deleting the word Negro. Others include combining queries about Hispanic origin and race into one question and getting rid of the word race in the question altogether.

Those modifications could have a lasting impact on how Americans think about race. Census data underpin broad stretches of society, from federal regulations to corporate marketing strategies, and how data are framed when collected speaks to our collective worldview (both contemporary and historical). Consider that in a 2006 study of 138 censuses from around the world, New York University sociologist Ann Morning found that only 15% of those asking about ancestry or national origin used the term race. Almost all of those that did were former slave economies....




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