"The most private question on this year’s form asks for an individual’s race, and that question has been asked by every census since the 1790 census conducted under then-President George Washington."
Patrick McHenry on Thursday, April 1st, 2010 in an op ed article
Rep. Patrick McHenry claims every census in history has asked for an individual’s race
In an op-ed piece for the conservative website Red State on April 1, 2010, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the ranking Republican on the Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee, sought to tamp down some of the misinformation being spread about the census by "otherwise well-meaning conservatives" and warned that failing to fully participate in the census could create a competitive advantage for Democrats.
Specifically, McHenry attempted to allay the fear among some Republicans who distrust the government and view the census as overly prying.
By law, the U.S. Census Bureau cannot share a person's personal information with anyone, including other federal agencies and law enforcement entities. All Census Bureau employees take an oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of the data. The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment of up to five years.
Nonetheless, a Pew Research Center survey in mid-March found nearly one in three Republicans did not think the Census Bureau would keep personal information confidential (slightly higher than the mistrust among Democrats); and when asked if the census asks for more information than the government really needs, 61 percent of Republicans either responded "yes" or "don't know," as opposed 47 percent of Democrats.
In his posting on Red State, McHenry said "the most private question on this year’s form asks for an individual’s race and that question has been asked by every census since the 1790 census conducted under then-President George Washington."
We decided to check that claim out, which was similar to one from Census Bureau director Robert M. Groves in a March 15, 2010, press release: "It's one of the shortest forms in our lifetime with just 10 questions very much like the questions James Madison and Thomas Jefferson helped craft on the very first Census."
Conveniently, the U.S. Census Bureau keeps historical records online of all the questions asked in every census going back to the first one in 1790.
If you follow the census questions asked through U.S. history, you can see how they reflect changing attitudes and understandings about race.
Yes, the 1790 census and others in the early years of the survey addressed race, but it was hardly a matter of checking a box. Rather, the census asked about the number of free white males and females; the number of "all other free persons" and the number of slaves.
By 1850, the Census asked about people's "color." According to the Census archives, this column was to be left blank if a person was white, marked "B" if a person was black, and marked "M" if a person was mulatto. A separate form listed slave inhabitants, the last census to do so. By 1870, the "color" options included "W" for white, "B" for black, "M" for mulatto, "C" for Chinese (a category which included all Asians), or "I" for American Indian. The question morphed into "color or race" in the mid-1900s, and then, finally to just "race" in 1970. In 1980, in addition to race, the Census began asking if a person was of Spanish or Hispanic origin or descent.
It's fair to say that every census has addressed the issue of race in some fashion. But we think it's a bit of a stretch when McHenry says "this year's asks for an individual’s race and that question has been asked by every census since the 1790 census."
In the 1790 Census (and several after it), a respondent was not simply asked their race. Rather, they were asked to list the number of white people, the number of "other free persons" and the number of slaves. In other words, it didn't ask for the race of non-whites. One could argue this reflects the common attitude about race at the time. But that's hardly the same as the 2010 version that simply asks a person's race.
Prior to the Civil War the census was more concerned with whether someone was enslaved or not, and establishing whether someone was white. This is a very different conception from our modern idea of race. Post Civil War, the terminology changed (from "color" to "race," for example) and the categories expanded over time. Certainly these are different standards when compared to today's measures. But again, one could argue that the questions comported with attitudes about race at those times, and the census has always asked descriptive questions that corrolate to race. So we rule McHenry's claim Mostly True.