Why the U.S. Census still uses the term ‘Negro’

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X meet bef...

Image of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X via Wikipedia

For years, Malcolm X criticized white-Americans as “blue-eyed devils,” but when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca – and saw Muslims of all different races, including white – he changed his views about skin color. The question of who is “white” or “black” in America has always been a subject of discussion – no more so than this and the next two weeks, when U.S. citizens fill out their Census forms and answer Question No. 9: “What is (your) race?”

Those surveyed are asked to check “one or more boxes,” choosing from the following categories, in the exact order you see here:

› [] White

› [] Black, African Am., or Negro.

› [] American Indian or Alaska Native (write in name of tribe)

› [] Asian Indian

› [] Chinese

› [] Filipino

› [] Japanese

› [] Korean

› [] Vietnamese

› [] Other Asian (write in)

› [] Native Hawaiian

› [] Guamanian or Chamorro

› [] Samoan

› [] Other Pacific Islander (write in)

› [] Some other race (write in)

The term “Negro” on the line for Box No. 2 is one for the record books. Who uses such a term on official documents in the year 2010? Only the U.S. government, which is holding on to a calcified relic of a word. “Negro” was how many people in the early-to-mid 1900s described black Americans. John F. Kennedy used the term, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have A Dream” speech, where he said (as one example): “The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

The disappearance of “Negro” as an acceptable term coincided with the success of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Still, a small (but significiant) percentage of African-Americans use the word to describe themselves – at least they did on the 2000 Census form. Ten years ago, according to the U.S. Census, 56,175 people “explicitly” wrote down the term “Negro” on their forms. The term may disappear from the 2020 form, depending on the response of people to the Census now in people’s hands. I contacted the Census to ask about the term, but haven’t heard back, so here’s what the Census says on its web site:

A test embedded in the 2010 Census will measure the effect of removing the term ‘Negro’ on reports about a person’s racial identity. The results will be used to inform design changes for future surveys and the 2020 Census.”

It’s unclear what this “embedded test” is. In the meantime, an NAACP official has voiced support (albeit tepid support) for the Census’ employment of the term “Negro.” Others have roundly criticized the word’s inclusion on the 2010 form, as in this response from student Vanetia Cannon at Washington University in St. Louis, who told her college paper: “I would not refer to myself as ‘negro,’ but my parents and grandparents would . . . I feel personally that it should not be on a personal government form.”

Racial self-identification – and the labels the U.S. government uses for people – is always a barometer of a changing society. Two centuries ago, in 1778, President George Washington used the word “Negro” in a matter-of-fact way when he said he wanted to acquire property by trading his slaves. “For this Land also,” he wrote in a letter, “I had rather give Negroes – if Negroes would do. For to be plain I wish to get quit of Negroes.”

Washington’s sentence is telling and antiquated, just like the one word from line 2 of the 2010 Census form. When I opened the form a few hours ago, and  saw the word “Negro,” I had to look twice to see if I was hallucinating. It’s no hallucination – just a reality check on the passage of time, and how some words refuse to disappear, even when we think they’ve gone forever.

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2 Responses to Why the U.S. Census still uses the term ‘Negro’

  1. josephcopsey says:

    The word “Negro” on the form is there in an effort to be all inclusive. There is a segment of the population that still refers itself to “Negro,” and the census did not want to miss those folks. Also, the census has an African-American advisory committee, and that committee did not voice an opposition to the race choices.

    • Thanks for your comment. Your mentioning of the advisory committee is another reason I wanted to speak to someone at the U.S. Census. I’d love to hear from someone on the committee about the use of the word “Negro.”

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