RACIAL MEASUREMENT IN THE AMERICAN CENSUS: Past Practices and Implications for the Future
RACIAL MEASUREMENT IN THE AMERICAN CENSUS: Past Practices and Implications for the Future. THE ROLE AND SIGNIFICANCE OF PUBLIC DATA ABOUT RACE. HISTORICAL ANTECEDENTS
1790 to 1840
Although the primitive ideas of Enlightenment scientists did not have much direct
influence on the political organization of the United States, the founding fathers
and certainly, the Constitutional framers such as Thomas Jefferson were deeply
influenced by Enlightenment thinking (Fredrickson 2002). These ideas set the
parameters for the Constitutional debates about who would be considered a bona
fide citizen of the new nation-state. The 1850 census coincided with a number of important scientific and political developments in U.S. history. By 1850, ethnology and eugenics—scientific racism—exerted an enormous influence on ideas about racial differences (Fredrickson
2002). RACIAL DATA AND THE GENESIS OF THE OFFICE OF
MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET DIRECTIVE NO. 15. The implementation of Directive No. 15 was first manifest in the 1980 census.
Conveniently, Directive No. 15 more or less validated the racial categories used in
the 1970 census. From the first days of the United States, notions of race have been a central theme
in public discourse and a guiding principle in public administration. Appropriately enough, beginning with the first census in 1790, the federal government has
endeavored to measure race throughout the history of this nation. Over time, the
federal government modified and elaborated its methods for obtaining information about the racial composition of the population. Not surprising, these changes
mirrored public thinking and concern about race in American society.
In the twentieth century, the struggle for racial equality galvanized public attention in much the same way that slavery had in the previous century. The civil rights
movement and its pursuit of equal access to education, housing, employment, and
public services underscored the need for a careful record of conditions among the
races. Social scientists brought their expertise to bear on these problems, and the
result was the vast expansion of the federal statistical system. For most purposes,
the Census Bureau and the decennial census served as the flagship for this system.