3 Jun 2022


Census Categories over Time

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What the Census Might Have Called Me 

In 1790, the census classified people into three categories which related to race and ethnicity of the individual. People were categorized as either; free white individuals (both males and females), all other free individuals, and slaves. Hence, there were only three categories in which individuals could be placed in. However, over the years, there have been considerable changes in the choices or groups that individuals could choose from as concerning their racial backgrounds. In the 2010 census, the American census categories for race and ethnicity ranged from white, African American, American Indian, Chinese, and Mexican, along with a wide range of other racial backgrounds (Pew Research Center, 2015). In the 1790 census, I would have fallen into the category of slaves. This is because, at the time, people from my racial background were used as slaves for free labor in the different states in the union. In the recent 2010 census, however, I would have been categorized as an African American or as black. This is an indicator of the significant growth and development that the American census has undergone over the last 200 years. 

Social Constructs 

The two different categories that exist in the two various censuses (1790 and 2010) are highly distinct. In particular, the 1790 categorization shows how the concept of race was utilized as a tool for the discrimination of specific groups. Race can be described as a category of individuals that are considered as inferior or superior, usually based on physical characteristics such as skin color or hair color (Kendall, 2012). In this case, individuals that did not belong in the white race were all forced to choose between two categories- free or slave- despite the existence of a wide range of groups. 

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Race and ethnicity are highly significant as the way individuals act concerning these terms significantly affects how they respond concerning these terms (Kendall, 2012). This means that most individuals are compelled to think on a racial basis and utilize the racial categories and meaning systems in which individuals have undergone socialization (Prewitt, 2016). During the 1790 census, it was clear that the stratification of individuals was entirely based on race and ethnicity to the extent of its pervasion to political and economic life. 

Hence, the right of individuals to vote at the time was utterly dependent on skin color. This resulted in three distinct stratification; white men and women, slaves, and free people. Skin color was used to establish the position of an individual in the society, in which individuals that were not classified as white were considered to be slaves or free people. At the time, I would have been categorized as a slave as most individuals of my skin color had been classified under slave labor. One category existed for whites, which varied greatly concerning their actual skin color and physical appearances, while the other categories were viewed as 'nonwhites.' 

However, in the 2010 census, the existence of a wide range of classifications exhibited the growth that the country had undergone concerning discrimination. Categories of race usually result in a sense of membership among those classified in this way. Over the years, racial classification in American society underwent several changes with the existence of a wide variety of races. In the 2010 census, I would have been categorized as African American or Black. Aside from this new category, other examples of different racial classifications that were now being politically and socially acknowledged include the Chinse, Japanese, Asian Indian, American Indian, Samoan, Hawaiian, and Cuban (Pew Research Center, 2015). This shows that the negative attitudes and faulty generalizations concerning members of selected racial and ethnic groups, which have advanced considerations for these races. 

As a social construct, race, and ethnicity affect how individuals can access social services such as employment, housing, and social services based on their racial or ethnic classification (Kendall, 2012). This means that increased rights have been provided to the racial classifications that were not once considered. This shows a significant change in the social structures of American society. Gender is also a vital aspect of the census that has changed across the years. In the 1790 census, only the ‘whites’ category was identified as having two different genders- males and females. This shows that the socially constructed differences between females and males were entirely founded in the social meaning and beliefs at the time. There were substantial differences and distinctions placed within gender. However, these social beliefs of the differences between the male and female genders have been minimized across the years. This can be observed with the lack of distinction between the two genders. 

Better Future Census Categories 

One challenge that exists in the categories currently used in the census in the correlation of nationalities with the designate racial groups. This means that national origins should be an additional category within the 2020 or 2030 census. This is to avoid discrimination on the basis that specific racial groups act as more authentic representatives of a particular national origin. The addition of national origins of an individual as a category within the census would be useful in informing Americans of the wide diversity of nationalities that exist in the country. This will also provide different individuals with the opportunity of recognizing their diverse ethnic origins (Liebler et al., 2017). 


Kendall, D. (2012).  Sociology in our times . Cengage Learning. 

Liebler, C. A., Porter, S. R., Fernandez, L. E., Noon, J. M., & Ennis, S. R. (2017). America’s churning races: Race and ethnicity response changes between census 2000 and the 2010 census.  Demography 54 (1), 259-284. 

Pew Research Center. (2015). Retrieved 30 th January from https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/interactives/multiracial-timeline/ 

Prewitt, K. (2016).  What Is" Your" Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans . Princeton University Press. 

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