Confronting the U.S. Census as a Weapon of White Supremacy
The race question has been crucial to civil rights, but it also perpetuates racism
On March 26, 2018, the Trump administration announced that it would add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Since then, many serious objections have been raised, highlighted through multiple lawsuits. Some are concerned that such a question will cause an undercount, others that it will result in further marginalization of immigrants, less access to resources, or an unfair shift in Congressional representation.
While it’s encouraging to see numerous critiques of the citizenship question, Americans need to do something we have never been willing to do: confront the centuries-old history of white supremacy that the census represents. Many people believe that the census is a neutral and even boring set of questions, but we ignore its history at our peril. There are two particular problems that thinking of the census as neutral masks. First, it obscures the long history of census questions and instructions supporting the principles of white supremacy, and second, it denies a history of census information being used to support policies of white supremacy. For example, the government used census data to target Japanese Americans for internment during World War II. While the citizenship question is bringing attention to these two problems, we need to go much further. If we are ever to imagine a way in which the census can be used to advance racial justice, we need to confront the damaging nature of the race questions themselves and how the census results have been used to protect white supremacy.
The census has included a question about race since its inception in 1790, but we rarely connect these questions to the principles of white supremacy that created the questions in the first place. For example, the 1870 census provided the following instructions for census workers: “Be particularly careful in reporting the class Mulatto. The word is here generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood. Important scientific results depend upon the correct determination of this class.” This census was the first one after the end of the Civil War, so it’s especially significant to note how the very language of the census instructions explicitly affirms the government’s interest in “scientific” racial categories.
Today the Census Bureau website claims that the use of racial categories is “not an attempt to define race biologically.” But this doesn’t change the fact that the Bureau is still depending on essentially the same racial categories that were deceptively presented as science in the 1700s and 1800s – and used to justify slavery, genocide, and the eugenics movement. A significant number of people in the US already believe that race is biological, which is a false and damaging belief, so when the census, decade after decade, continues to use racial categories, that only compounds a serious problem. These racial categories were invented in order to create a racial hierarchy that establishes white people as biologically superior. When people today believe that race is biological they are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuating this dangerous belief system of white supremacy and anti-blackness.
Furthermore, while white and black racial categories have, with varying wording, consistently appeared in the census since 1790, other racial categories have changed significantly over time. For years, I’ve used the history of the census questions to teach about the social construction of race in the US. Showing how the language about race has changed every ten years is a concrete demonstration that race is a social construct. The census is a decade by decade window into the social construction of race in American history.
In addition to perpetuating a centuries-old racial ideology, our tendency to think of census questions as neutral ignores the history of census results being used to support white supremacist policies. Going back to the formation of the United States, the Constitution mandated that three-fifths of the slaves counted in the census would be included when calculating Congressional representation. Yet, who was being represented and empowered by such a mandate? Certainly not the slaves. Instead, this was a decision that increased the power of slave owners and slaveholding states. Furthermore, this foundational aspect of the Constitution reinforced a powerful belief grounded in anti-blackness: the idea that black people are not fully human.
We might think that such racial policy work is a thing of the past, but cases of census results being used to uphold systemic racism have taken place in the 20th century as well. In addition to census data being used to allow for the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, it’s notable that it was only in 1930 that the census added the racial category of “Mexicans.” Is it any coincidence that in the years that followed thousands of American citizens of Mexican descent were deported to Mexico and that, by the time of the 1940 census, the category was removed?
In the 1960s, there was an important effort to change the course of how the census was used, when the civil rights movement prompted the census to shift away from serving as a weapon of white supremacy to becoming a tool for racial justice. A statement on the Census Bureau’s current website reflects that initiative when it states that the census asks about race for “policy decisions, particularly for civil rights.” However, while there are no doubt valuable racial justice programs today that benefit from funding related to this data collection, the structural system of white supremacy that existed before the civil rights movement is still in place, even if it looks different.
Today, racial segregation is pervasive, and the racial wealth gap is wide. If asking about race on the census was supposed to support civil rights for the last fifty years, and civil rights are eroding, shouldn’t we acknowledge that the census never stopped supporting white supremacy? How did we get to the point where non-profit organizations that care about racial justice are at the mercy of an instrument grounded in white supremacy? Even former Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt recommends that the census conducted every ten years should not ask about race, as he describes in his 2013 book What Is Your Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans. When will we listen to Audre Lorde, who in 1979 said that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”?
So, what do we do? Do we just eliminate the race category from the census? Americans already tend to deny a history of racism, so just eliminating the category in isolation would only add to that denial. Instead, we need to do what we have never been able to do: confront the history of white supremacy in this country and acknowledge the many ways it persists today, the census being only one of them. The census, though, is a place to begin; the mere act of asking people to read through the Census Bureau’s website “About Race,” which I do in my college classes and public workshops, can begin a conversation that results in people asking a flurry of questions that get to the heart of the social construction of race in the US. It is these conversations that can raise awareness so that people can look back at both recent and long-past census questionnaires with a newly critical eye. It is these conversations that can empower them to ask questions related to power, including: why do we have the racial categories on the census that we do? What purpose do these specific categories actually serve? And: what does it mean that some members of racial and ethnic groups lobby in hopes of getting their group included in the census while other members fear such inclusion?
While the proposed citizenship question for the 2020 census has provoked significant concern — and rightly so — we must go beyond asking about its purpose and impact as if this one question will spoil an otherwise fair system of democracy. The census has always upheld white supremacy, and if that is ever to change, we need to first acknowledge how its questions and the use of its results have served white supremacy in the past and how they continue to do so today. What we need to do is what we have never been able to do: dismantle systemic racism.
Karen Gaffney, PhD, is an English Professor at Raritan Valley Community College who recently published Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018). She is an anti-racism educator and activist who runs the blog Divided No Longer. She is currently serving as a Public Scholar for the NJ Council for the Humanities and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @dividednolonger.