In history, the decennial census comprised of questions concerning race and ethnicity even though the inquiries concerning these censuses and the means for tabulating the findings change after almost every decade. These variations are caused by changes in ethnic and racial makeup, changes in political and social attitudes, and the constant need for data by the federal government. Alterations and continuities in ethnicity and race have been experienced in the United States for about 200 years (He et al.).
New populations entering the United States have led to an increase in the number of items linked to these aspects. Since 1790, details relating to race have been included in all censuses, whereby the total population was apportioned as the total number of free people, Indians not facing taxation and two-thirds of other persons. The constitution’s section 2 in Article 1 authorized the multilateral classification, and regarding the race context, whites were the free persons. The two-third comprised of slaves and blacks. The usage of race data continued even during the civil war, and there was the ‘one drop rule’ which defined black people as those who had even one black ancestor.
In 1850, new populations entered the US, and this boosted the race and ethnicity-related items. The immigrants were distinguished from the indigenous whites (He et al.). Their identification related to their language status, citizenship, native birthplace, the time they arrived in the United States, immigration among others. Those of Asian origin were classified as “aliens” and were not negligible for citizenship, and just like the Chinese and Japanese, they were included in the race items. The census recorded in 1980 had eight categories; the (American) Indian, octoroon, quadroon, Japanese, Chinese, mulatto, black and white. They combined tribe, color, and Asian nationality origin (He et al.).
In the twentieth century, race and ethnicity became more complex as the items used identified citizens who enjoyed fewer rights as compared to the indigenous white inhabitants. The records included the addition of Asian categories due to increased migration from their countries, leading to the implementation of the Nationality and Immigration act of 1965. Some classes were also eliminated, including the Mexican category which was only used in the 1930 race item (He et al.). Mixed-race groupings including the Hawaiians and the mulatto were only used briefly, as they are not currently included in the censuses.
Over time, ethnicity-related items have increased and decreased, the items continually revolving around origins, nativity, and immigration. The 1920 census encompassed ten items, and after 1965, data regarding race and ethnicity was acquired by usage of self-identification means. The 1970 census involved items that were a result of the changing programmatic requirements for ethnicity data to improve the listing of the minorities and those of Hispanic origin (He et al.). In the 1970 census, the Hispanic/Spanish origin was introduced and was later tested and advanced in consequent statistics.
The 1990’s census eliminated about 300 races, 500 American Indian tribes, 80 Hispanic-origin groups, and over 500 ancestry groups. Besides recording identifications with specific racial groups, people could specify “other race” by checking circles provided in questionnaires indicating “other race” or by filling “other race” in a box provided. Nine million people marked “other race” in 1990, and this consisted of 97% people originating from the Hispanic origin (He et al.). As the state plans for the 2000 census, one of its principal aims is to lessen differential undercounts, and it plans to accomplish this by targeting hard-to-count areas in advance. Also, the idea of a cohesive one-number counting may be implemented, whereby the estimated number of missed persons will be incorporated when the official census counts will be released.