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Racial, Ethnic and Gender Categories in the U.S. Census

Racial, ethnic, and gender categories have been used to gather information on the population by the U.S. Census since the records started. However, this system is always evolving, with these categories being adjusted and improved over the years. The paper aims at analyzing the concepts of race, ethnicity, and gender as social constructs, and propose suggestions on improving the existing population categories for the future U.S. Census.

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What the Census Might Have Called Me

Every person thinks of their race, ethnicity, origin, gender as a given: for instance, I know that I am a woman of Filipino and Puerto Rican descent. However, if I were born in a different epoch, I would not be officially considered as being who I am. According to the 1790 Census, in eighteenth-century America, there were four racial, ethnic, and gender categories: “free white males”, “free white females”, “all other free persons” and “slaves” (Pew Research Center, 2020). Moreover, the census only listed male free people of color, putting other household members in brackets (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012). Therefore, I might have been put into the category of “all other free persons” but only as a member of somebody’s household, considering that I had not been a slave. By 2010 I would be categorized as a female Filipino/Puerto Rican. These discussions do not mean anything for me as a person but show how the concepts of gender, race, and ethnicity are constructed and changed with society’s development.

Social Constructs

As was illustrated in the previous section of the paper, the differences in categorizations offered by the two Censuses show the nature of concepts such as race or gender. Ferguson (2016) notes that every social situation is affected by “historical patterns of race, class, gender, and sexuality that are not necessarily apparent to the participants” (p. 15). Analyzing census categorizations allows to see how these concepts are socially constructed.

A good illustration of the social construction of gender comes from the 1790 census with its four-tier division. It might seem that in eighteenth-century America, only white people were identified gender-wise. However, in reality, it does not mean that people of other descent did not have gender, but this issue was beyond the census interests. Norman noted that “the precise enumeration of free white males was intended to assess the country’s industrial and military potential” (as cited in Eschner, 2017, para. 4). Moreover, it illustrated the female inequality of the time – similar to the current binary-only division of sexes in the 2020 U.S. Census.

Another illustration of how census categories reflect the social nature of familiar concepts is shown in handling the race question. For instance, the 1790 census hardly recognized any race beyond white using the word “other”. Furthermore, my Filipino origin started to be recognized only in the 1920s, and Puerto Rican – only since 1970 (Pew Research Center, 2020). It does not mean that Filipinos or Puerto Ricans have not lived in the United States before that time. It shows how the concepts of race and ethnicity change over time and reflect the developmental societal processes.

Better Future Census Categories

The official census has a goal of reflecting the actual number and statistics on the country’s population. Moreover, it provides critical data necessary to deliver legal, business, educational, and other services to people and support them and their communities. However, to do this, all the existing segments of society should be taken into account. It is especially crucial nowadays when the ongoing 2020 Census has shown some shortcomings and challenges.

The first aspect deals with gender categorization. The 2020 Census questionnaire provides only two options for respondents to identify their gender affiliation: either male or female (United States Census 2020, 2020). However, it does not acknowledge the existence of non-binary or genderqueer individuals who might categorize themselves as having two or more genders, no gender, or being other-gendered. The same applies to introducing a sexual orientation category with an option of free identification.

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The second issue that was supposed to be solved in the 2020 Census is the problem of racial and ethnic identity, especially for Hispanics. This problem was significant already in 2000 and 2010 “when many Latinos have either left the race question blank or checked off ‘some other race’ box” (Wang, 2017, para. 11). Moreover, personally, it makes little sense in identifying myself in separate categories as Filipino Asian by race and Hispanic Puerto Rican by origin as both of these aspects are equally important for me.

This inconsistency creates controversies and makes “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” people feel discriminated. Furthermore, if now white and black people can write in their origins, then for the next census, this option should be available for everyone. For instance, the 2020 U.S. Census questionnaire lists 6 Asian-American groups – Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, while other ethnicities are “Other Asian” (United States Census 2020, 2020). It seems logical to unify an already complicated form and provide an option of an open answer to this question.

It is essential to make sure that all segments of the U.S. population are reflected in the census. I suggest that forms be write-in without pre-ready answers, since “forms … influence thinking and behavior when people in authority endorse that information” (Balzhiser et al., 2019, p. 4). This would create complications for the statisticians, but potentially allow to show the real state of things.


Balzhiser, D., Pimentel, C., & Scott, A. (2019). Matters of form: Questions of race, identity, design, and the U.S. Census. Technical Communication Quarterly, 28(1), 3-20. 

Eschner, K. (2017). The first US Census only asked six questions. Smithsonian Magazine. 

Ferguson, S.J. (2016). Race, gender, sexuality, and social class: Dimensions of inequality and identity. Sage.

National Archives and Records Administration. (2012). African Americans and the Federal Census, 1790-1930. 

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Parker, K., Horowitz, J.M., Morin, R., & Lopez, M.H. (2015). Chapter 2: Counting multiracial Americans. 

Pew Research Center. (2020). What census calls us. 

United States Census 2020. (2020). Questions asked on the form. Web.

Wang, H.L. (2017). How the U.S. defines race and ethnicity may change under Trump. NPR.

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