The ‘race’ question on the U.S. census is racist

The ‘race’ question on the U.S. census is racist.
Why this is so and what to answer instead.

by Bob Curtis
April/May 2000

Argument: Point One | Argument: Point Two | Conclusion
Disclaimer | Bibliography | Additional Reading | Copyright

You read that right. The question of race on the U.S. census is in itself racist, not to mention meaningless in a purely scientific sense.

Consider the following points which should make it clear why I believe this to be true.

  1. The question of race on the U.S. Census has extremely racist beginnings. According to the FAQ on the U.S. Census Bureau website, “the Census Bureau has included a question on race since the first census in 1790,” (which they somehow seem to think justifies the continuation of this census question – we’ve been doing it for two hundred ten years, so it must be right?). What they fail to mention – very obviously on purpose – is why race data was collected in the first census in 1790 and thereafter. In order to illustrate to you the answer they are purposely avoiding, let’s look at the U.S. Constitution as ratified in 1787. Article I, section 2 states, among other things,
    Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

    Of course, “all other Persons” included mainly slaves.. In other words, in order to establish representation in the House of Representatives, free men were counted as one person, and slaves were counted as two thirds of a person!

    As stated in the book American Government: People, Institutions, and Policies,

    The Great Compromise dealt with the representation [in Congress] of slaves in a very subtle way. The northerners knew that the southerners would demand some counting of slaves in determining a state’s representation, but few southerners were audacious enough to claim that slaves, who could not vote, should be counted the same as free persons. It was decided that all free persons, excluding “Indians not taxed,” would count as citizens for the purposes of representation in the House. However… “all other persons,” such as slaves, counted three fifths. The three-fifths compromise was adopted without much controversy. 1

    (It should possibly be noted that, although most northern representatives to the Constitutional Convention were extremely opposed to slavery – including such notable people as Benjamin Franklin – they chose to compromise to keep the political ties between the states solid, hoping to tackle the slavery issue at a later time when they hoped the union would be stronger; however, whether this plan was justified is not within the scope of this treatise.)

    Furthermore, Colleen Monahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health states on her Evolution of the Census web page,

    The original census included only three questions: color, free or slave status and the sex of free white persons.

    (Thus, the origins of the census were sexist in nature, too! Since even free women could not vote, they didn’t legally count either.)

    It should be clear from this evidence that the question of race, as asked on the first Census and thereafter, was a question to determine the representational status of an individual based on whether they were free men (i.e. in general “white”), a slave (“black”) or “Indians not taxed” (non-citizen natives). Thus, the very beginnings of the race question on the Census were extremely racist in nature.

    However, the racist usage of the Census ended with neither slavery nor women’s suffrage.

    The Census Bureau claims on their FAQ page that,

    The numbers we publish are combined with thousands of answers from people in your neighborhood and across the country. No one, except sworn Census Bureau employees, can see your questionnaire or link your name with your responses. In fact, the law provides severe penalties for any census employee that makes your answers known.

    This may give you a warm, fuzzy feeling about your data being protected from prying eyes – but it shouldn’t. Consider what Colleen Monahan goes on to explain on her Evolution of the Census web page,

    Though standards exist to maintain the privacy of those being enumerated, data from the census can be and has been misused. Most notably, census data was used during the Civil War to identify the number of free and slave African-Americans prior to General Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign and during World War II to identify the location of Japanese-Americans in the United States.

    David Kopel concurs in his article The Federal Leviathan is Counting on You, stating,

    Back in 1940, American citizens of Japanese ancestry dutifully supplied their race and national origin on the census forms. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, the government decided to start putting American citizens of Japanese descent, who lived on the West Coast, into concentration camps. (Colorado Governor Ralph Carr allowed many Japanese-Americans to move to Colorado instead of going to President Roosevelt’s internment camps.) The 1940 census data was used to find out which neighborhoods in California, Oregon, and Washington had a high percentage of Japanese-Americans, so that federal agents would know where to go to round up people.

    The Japanese-Americans that Monahan and Kopel speak of were singled out, forced to rid themselves of their property (in many cases at a severe loss) and move to internment (a.k.a. concentration) camps. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 21, 1942 (from the Museum of the City of San Francisco’s Internment of San Francisco Japanese web page),

    It was in 1850 — more than 90 years ago — that the first Japanese came to San Francisco, more than four years before Commodore Perry engineered the first trade treaty with Japan. The first arrival was one Joseph Heco, a castaway, brought here by his rescuers…

    …In 1861, the second Japanese came here. Five years later, seven more arrived. The next year there were 67, and from then on migration boomed. By 1869 there was a Japanese colony at Gold Hill near Sacramento. In 1872 the first Japanese Consulate opened in San Francisco – an office that passed through many hands, many regimes, and many policies before December 7, 1941. On that fateful day, according to census records, there were 5,280 Japanese in San Francisco.

    They [the Japanese] left San Francisco by the hundreds all through last January and February, seeking new homes and new jobs in the East and Midwest. In March, the Army and the Wartime Civil Control Administration took over with a new humane policy of evacuation to assembly and relocation centers where both the country and the Japanese could be given protection. The first evacuation under the WCCA came during the first week in April, when hundreds of Japanese were taken to the assembly center at Santa Anita. On April 25 and 26, and on May 6 and 7, additional thousands were taken to the Tanforan Center. These three evacuations had cleared half of San Francisco. The rest were cleared yesterday.

    These last Japanese registered here last Saturday and Sunday. All their business was to have been cleaned up, all their possessions sold or stored. Yesterday morning, at the Raphael Weill School on O’Farrell Street, they started their ride to Tanforan. Quickly, painlessly, protected by military police from any conceivable “incident,” they climbed into the six waiting special Greyhound buses.

    Thus even in the 20th century, while the world battled fascism in Europe and Asia, the answers to the race question on the U.S. Census were being used to commit wholesale discrimination against a certain group of U.S. citizens.

    (As a side note, if the Census Bureau really wanted to make sure that no one could “link your name with your responses,” then there would have provided two separate census forms to be returned by separate envelopes: one with the number and names of people in your household, and another with the demographic questions – but that’s a different issue.)

  2. The question of race is also moot; it has no real meaning whatsoever.

    To begin with, the idea of race is subjective. Ask two random people to describe what a “black” person is physically like, and you’ll get two, sometimes similar but often quite different, answers. Ask those people to define what a “Native American” looks like, and again you’ll get different answers.

    Let’s look at this another way. By most people’s standards I am a “white” person. I do have somewhat pale skin, but it’s actually more of a yellowish pink color rather than “white.” Others of my friends who would also be considered to be “white” have either darker or lighter skin than mine, or skin of differing shades of yellowish pink. Are they, then, of a different race?

    Skin color is not the only physical trait by which people differ, so why is skin color used to classify race? Wouldn’t using eye color be just as valid of a ‘race’ indicator? Using eye color, we could separate the “blues” from the “browns” from the “grays,” making me and Michael Jordan members of the “brown eyed” race. Silly? Yes, it is, but no more than using skin color as a classification feature.

    As the book The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology states,

    …the lack of agreement among different researchers indicates that the entire concept of race is arbitrary as it applies to humans. If clearly discernible races existed, their number should have long since been determined without argument. How useful is a classification system when there is so much disagreement about the number of units?

    …Many racial classifications in Western societies use skin color as a major distinguishing feature. The races correspond to different measures of skin color — “white,” “yellow,” “red,” “brown,” and “black” for example. We know, however, that skin color does not fall into 5, or even 50, different categories. Skin color is a continuous variable. This means that any attempt to divide the continuous range into discrete units (races) is going to arbitrary. 2

    Further along this line of logic, the idea of race is absurd in any true scientific meaning. In their Statement on “Race”, the American Anthropological Association (a group of scientists devoted to investigating the biological, cultural and technological variation and evolution of humans) states, in part,

    In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species… (View the entire statement here.)

    Similarly, the book The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology states,

    What is wrong with classifying people into races? After all, we can do it accurately. Or can we?

    A major problem with the race concept is that scientists have never agreed on the number of human races. How many can you name or see? Some have suggested that there are three human races: Europeans, Africans and Asians… But many populations do not fit neatly into these three basic categories. What about native Australians? …these are dark-skinned people who frequently have curly or wavy hair that is sometimes blond and who have abundant facial hair. On the basis of skin color, we might be tempted to label these people as African, but on the basis of hair and facial shape they might be labeled as European…

    Biological variation is real; the order we impose on this variation by using the concept of race is not. Race is a product of the human mind, not of nature. 2

    The confusing nature of this issue can be seen within the Census Bureau itself, by looking at their worthless struggle to define race into accurate categories. This struggle is itself an indication of the arbitrary nature of the concept of race. Read, for example, these rather confusing statements from their FAQ page, which state,

    On October 30, 1997 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued “Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity.” All federal agencies, including the Census Bureau, who collect and report data on race and ethnicity must follow these standards. Race and ethnicity are considered to be two separate and distinct concepts in this standard, and OMB accepted the Interagency Committee for the Review of the Racial and Ethnic Standards recommendation that two separate questions — one for race and one for ethnicity or Hispanic origin — be used whenever feasible to provide flexibility and ensure data quality.

    In Census 2000, like in the 1990 census, the Hispanic origin question has a write-in line which is used to obtain write-in responses of Hispanic subgroups other than the major groups of Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Ricans. Persons with other Hispanic origins such as Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Argentinean, and so on, will be able to write in their specific origin group. In fact, the Census Bureau’s code list contains over 30 Hispanic or Latino subgroups. For Census 2000 maximum detail on Hispanic subgroups will be made available in micro data files while data products containing tabulations will report less detail information.

    They obviously realized that saying someone is of “Hispanic” origin was different than saying they were of a certain “race,” as there is a full spectrum of variation in skin color (and other physical attributes) among Hispanic people. This seems almost forward thinking, until you ask yourself why people who are descended from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, etc. are not broken down into countries of origin for the census? It is probably beyond the scope of this treatise to tackle this issue, but suffice it to say it is probably some sort of racially based discrimination. (Perhaps you can ask the INS…???)

    The Census Bureau FAQ page goes on to say,

    In October 1997 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued revised federal standards for collecting and presenting data on race and ethnicity. Among other changes, the standards allow respondents when answering the race question option to “mark or select one or more races.” The OMB made this modification after considering recommendations from its Interagency Committee for the Review of Racial and Ethnic Standards, information obtained through public hearings and other sources of public opinion, and test results from the Census Bureau and other federal agencies.

    In the 1996 Census Survey, the Census Bureau tested revisions to the questionnaire that would allow multiple responses to the race question. There was no evidence that any of these experimental treatments had a negative effect on the final mail response rates. Also, we do not expect the instruction “mark one or more” to significantly affect reporting of race, because fewer than two percent of respondents in recent tests used this option.

    So, you can identify with more than one race (for instance “Asian Indian” and “Black”), but they say this won’t affect the results. Why is that, exactly? Two percent of the U.S. population is a pretty significant number! One would think that such a large number of those who would choose all that apply would skew the census results, even if slightly and even more so in states where high numbers of such people live. The answer to this is most likely because anyone choosing multiple racial identities will be considered “black” for statistical purposes. Charles Michael Byrd of Interracial Voice, in his treatise Census 2000 Protest: Check American Indian!, states,

    [On the Census form w]e will have… …the “politically correct” version of the old “one drop rule.” The “politically correct” version goes by the name: check all that apply. Individuals who can claim African heritage and who check the “black” or “African-American” box on the 2000 Census — even if they also check a second or third box — will be reported solely as “black” or “African-American.” So much for not being monoracially pigeonholed.

    Further confusing this issue is someone like myself. While someone looking at me might say I am “white,” I might consider myself a “European-American.” But even that description isn’t accurate in my case. In my heritage I am, among other things, of “German,” “Italian,” “British,” “French” and “Native American” decent. But I don’t see German, Italian, British, French or Native American on the Census form? How am I to accurately display my “racial” identity using the check all that apply rule?

    This of course brings me to the term “American Indian” as used on the Census form. Who falls into that category? Is an “American Indian” someone who is originally from India and now lives in America? Or are we still falsely referring to those of aboriginal American descent as “Indians?”

    The Census Bureau FAQ page continues to illustrate the totally subjective nature of the race question, saying,

    Each respondent decides his or her racial identity. For the first time ever, people with mixed racial heritage may select more than one racial category. The groups shown in the census race question can be collapsed into the minimum race categories needed by the federal government: “White,” “Black or African American,” “American Indian and Alaska Native,” “Asian,” and “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.” People who mark the American Indian or Alaska Native category are asked to provide the name of their principal or enrolled tribe. People who select the “Other Asian,” “Other Pacific Islander,” or “Some other race” are asked to write-in their specific race.

    What? So not only is racial identification arbitrary when one person is defining it, but in the census each person gets to choose their own racial identity! Thus, the race question is subjective to the extreme – it’s both arbitrary AND inconsistent with any sort of established rule! So, while the Census Bureau has attempted to create defined racial categories, there can be no consistency in the results.

    Thus, scientifically speaking, the idea of “race” is invalid. The concept of race does exist, but it is merely a socio-political construct created by millennia of xenophobia, warfare and our natural desire to classify all things into a tidy, neat and easy taxonomy.


So, since the question of race is absolutely distasteful, what should your answer be to the “race” question? You are required by law to return your census, after all, and despite all I’ve said here the census is used for the Constitutionally valid purpose of determining Congressional representation and voter districting for each state (as outlined by the Constitution in Article I, section 2 and modified by Amendment 14, section 2), so we should all do our Constitutional duty and fill out the number of people in our household as accurately as possible.

On the other hand, to choose an answer among the government’s so-called racial categories is obviously scientifically bogus, an invasion of our privacy and something that could be used against us or those we care about at a later date. As Steve Dasbach, national chairman of the Libertarian Party, states in a July 10, 1997 press release,

Every single American can strike a blow for a colorblind society by saying ‘no’ to the census takers and ‘no’ to racial classifications,” Dasbach said. “We’re all Americans — what else does the government need to know?

Therefore, in my mind there are only three valid responses I can think of that you should consider as your answer to the question of your race. They are

  1. answer nothing; leave the question blank.
  2. answer “human” in the Some other race answer block.
  3. answer “Homo sapien” in the Some other race answer block (while not actually the name of our race, this is the scientific name for the human species; the scientific name for modern humans is actually Homo sapien sapiens, but unfortunately I don’t think that will fit on the form).

Back to my Constitution Page


Please keep in mind that you may get a visit or call from the Census Bureau if you do not fill out your census forms completely, and there may even be a fine ($100 according to the World Net Daily article US Incensed Over Census and verified by the article Census Answers Are Required by Law) if you refuse to fill it out. If you choose to join this protest, I want you to do so knowing the possible annoyances and consequences. On the other hand, remember that our revolutionary mothers and fathers gambled and often gave up all they had (including their lives) in the defense of freedom, so you have to ask yourself if the small annoyance of a Census Bureau visit and/or a $100 fine is really all that much of a sacrifice?

If Census Bureau employees do come to your door, hand them a copy of this treatise! 🙂


  1. American Government: People, Institutions, and Policies, Third Edition, Johnson et. al., pg. 43, Copyright 1994, Houghton Mifflin Company (ISBN 0-395-66714-3).
  2. The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology, Second Edition, Relethford, pgs. 165-167, Copyright 1994, Mayfield Publishing Company (ISBN 1-55934-206-4).
  3. U.S. Census Bureau website FAQ page.
  4. American Anthropology Association website Statement on “race”.
  5. Colleen Monahan, Evolution of the U.S. Census.
  6. David Kopel‘s The Federal Leviathan is Counting on You.
  7. Charles Michael Byrd‘s treatise Census 2000 Protest: Check American Indian!
  8. U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 2, as ratified September 17th, 1787.
  9. S.F. CLEAR OF ALL BUT 6 SICK JAPS, article from the San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 1942 as presented on the Museum of the City of San Francisco website.
  10. Libertarian Party urges nationwide boycott of government’s “official” racial categories, press release, July 10, 1997.

Additional Reading

  1. Yahoo! Full Coverage: Census Debate.
  2. Satirical Census Advertisement (250KB).
  3. Will The 2000 Census Hurt Blacks?
  4. US Incensed Over Census.
  5. Lengthy Survey Asks 53 Questions.
  6. Some white Americans shun the census over privacy, fear of government.,1136,30000000000106417,00.html
  7. Civics Lessons in the Census.
  8. Who Counts? by Margo J. Anderson and Stephen E. Fienberg
  9. The American Census: A Social History by Margo J. Anderson
  10. Margo J. Anderson, Ph.D, Professor American History, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
  11. Census Too Nosy? Don’t Answer Invasive Questions, GOP Suggests.
  12. The Census Scam.
  13. Challenge to Census Bureau Planned.
  14. Senseless count adds up to intrusion.
  15. Census lands in middle of a privacy backlash.
  16. Census 2000 too nosey? Republicans criticize long-form questions.
  17. Privacy May Affect Census Response.
  18. Census Suit Raises Privacy Questions.
  19. Senate Wants No Fines For Not Completing Census.
  20. Census ‘Long Forms’ Unevenly Distributed.
  21. To count all the people we need to feed.
  22. US Census Bureau Says Privacy Concerns Hurting Some Returns.

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    Copyright Notice

    This text is Copyright © 2000 by Bob Curtis. It may be freely distributed (please do!!!) and freely posted so long as the content is not edited and this copyright notice remains intact, including the URL link below to the original document. The original document can be found at

    Last updated April 5, 2000

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