03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From Slave to 'Negro': A Brief History of Getting Counted by the U.S. Census

2010: There was a small uproar last week as the U.S. Census Bureau began to publicize the country's 2010 headcount when it was pointed out that the very box that the president of the United States would fill out actually read: "Black, African Am., or Negro." The news story was compounded by recently released statements made by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) during the 2008 campaign in which he referred to the president as "having no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." The San Jose Mercury News was one of many local papers to call into question the place this word has -- if it has a place at all -- as the government begins the arduous task of mapping the statistical lives of 300 million people in the United States.

Sonny Le, a regional spokesman for the Census Bureau, said the term "Negro" has been on the survey for at least 100 years. He said the form is reviewed and analyzed thoroughly by different offices and advisory groups before being finalized. Le said the decision to keep the term "Negro" on the form was due principally to the fact some older African-Americans still identify themselves by that term. In fact, in the 2000 census, more than 50,000 people chose to write down explicitly that they identified themselves as "Negro" in a section where the census allows people to provide additional information. That number does not include those who checked the box "Black, African-Am., or Negro."

2000: We don't have to travel too far back to recount the last time the language of the census was reprimanded -- about ten years will do. That's when William Safire took down the language of the census form for its needless commas, grammatical errors and, of course, outdated vocabulary.

The sensitive question of ''What is this person's race?'' has three main categories: the above ''American Indian or Alaska Native,'' which follows ''white'' and three choices of names for the other -- Black, African Am., or Negro.'' The Census Bureau explains that the terminology changes with each generation and that ''Negro'' was put in so that older members of the group would not feel outdated. What about whites from South Africa? I presume the form presumes that they will choose to describe themselves as white. In a triumph of inclusive self-differentiation, 11 other racial groups are listed, from ''Asian Indian'' to ''Samoan,'' with blank space left for anyone to write in ''Some other race.''

A Brief History

1790: Most persons of African descent were first counted in a category that referred to their status as property, as the slaves of a household (and later, three-fifths of a person for taxation purposes). In her book on the history of ethnicity and the census, sociology professor Clara E. Rodriguez explains the history of the category. Names were not used to describe the slaves, nor were their gender or age reported. The options were: free white males of sixteen years and upward (for military service), free white males under sixteen years, free white females, all other free persons (by sex and color), and then slaves.

1820: "Free colored persons" is added to the census. The gender and age of slaves are now recorded separately.

1850-1920: The category is labeled "black" or "mulatto." In 1890 there is an added designation for smaller amounts of "black blood."

1930-1960: The category is changed to just "Negro."

1970: "Black" is reintroduced. The category now reads "Black or Negro."

2000: "African American" is added to the mix, thus creating the category that is used on the 2010 census: "black, African Am. or Negro." According to Rodriguez, "The inclusion of African American is significant, for it is the first time the group has been given a label that suggests geographic origin rather than color or race."

For more on language and the 2010 Census, please visit our Déjà Vu blog at

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