For more than a century, the term “negro” has appeared on United States census surveys. Beginning with the 2014 annual American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau distributes to more than 3.5 million U.S. households, this will no longer be the case. The new forms will use the terms “African American” and “Black” only. Certainly the change is a reflection of a shifting language and society. Along with the term “colored,” “negro” is a term rarely used now other than in the case of some rights activist groups dating back to older eras, like the United Negro College Fund.
While some controversy over the term has stemmed from its origination in the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination, the more likely reason for the change is simply, as Dr. Foeman, professor in the West Chester University communication studies department, put it, “Nobody calls anyone a Negro anymore.” Nevertheless, changes in census terms question just what the race category really means.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and Office of Management and Budget (OMB), “The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.” This definition of race calls census participants’ attention to what social scientists have been saying all along, that race is a social construct.
In some cases of course, this social construction may loosely represent individuals’ biological differences, but often race is nothing more than a form of social identification. At West Chester University, Dr. Anita Foeman started a project in 2006 called “The DNA Project” that examines the connection between the science of DNA and individuals’ day-to-day real world experiences of race. Students in many of West Chester’s intercultural communication classes participate in a pre-project interview, sending DNA samples to a lab to be tested, and then participating in a post-test discussion. The lab results show students a graph of their heritage according to their DNA. More than 100 people have participated so far, often receiving surprising results. One student who participated in the project believing his heritage was strictly European expressed his surprise, “When I was told that I had an African lineage somewhere back in my blood line, it got me very excited. I was looking for something out of the ordinary to tell my family.”
This is only one of many examples of participants receiving surprising results. These cases include students who have very different racial identifications, yet they receive DNA test results so similar that genetically they seem one in the same. Dr. Foeman explained that the project shows that while we often view race as very distinct categories, the truth is completely opposite. She reveals, “My goal on this project is really to get people to talk about some of the things that have been difficult to talk about. People have been talking about the genetics of DNA. People are talking about the social construction of race. People are talking about diversity, and all in ways that are exciting, joining, positive, and forward-looking,” Foeman said.
The more people talk about race, the more they begin to understand that race is people putting people into categories. Even as we realize the irrelevance of race, we also recognize why the race category is so important for the U.S. census. The government uses this category for political reasons like implementing social programs, allocating federal funding, and determining other economic and social policies. A category that at one point in the history of the U.S. excluded groups of people from fully participating in society is now used to make sure those same groups are included.
Unfortunately, in day-to-day personal experiences, racism and discrimination live on, and for that reason, race is as relevant as ever. In the first official census in 1790, the only implications of race were “free white,” “all other free persons,” and “slave.” Since then the U.S. census has archived the nation’s struggles with the divide between black and white, how to sort categories of Native Americans, and many other racial issues. As the census evolves, more races continue to be included and terms continue to change.
Today, the census includes categories like “Native Hawaiian,” “Asian Indian,” “Vietnamese,” and even an “other” category where participants can fill in their own response. Another indicator of the evolving appreciation for diversity in the U.S. was the change in the 2000 census. For the first time, participants could select more than one race category to signify mixed identities, and nearly 7 million Americans chose to mark more than one category.
According to Dr. Foeman, the constant change and inclusion of more race categories in the census is “because there are more people who have a steak in what they are called.” These changes in the census reveal changes in Americans’ attitudes both in personal and social realms. As social categories, personal identifications, and political underpinnings continue to evolve, hopefully one day Americans’ can look forward to checking off the category, “mixed American.” After all, that is what we all are.
Joy Wilson is a fourth-year student majoring in communications. She can be reached at JW794401@wcupa.edu.