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Patrick McHenry
stated on April 1, 2010 in an op ed article:
"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."
true mostly-true
By Robert Farley April 7, 2010

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.

Our Sources

Rep. Patrick McHenry's Web site, Press release: "GOP Census Lead Sounds Alarm Over Low Republican Response Rate," March 29, 2010

Red State, "Returning the Census is Our Constitutional Duty," by Rep. Patrick McHenry, April 1, 2010

Houston Chronicle, "Census caught in anger toward Washington," by Richard S. Dunham and Meredith Simons, March 27, 2010

Gallup, "State of the States: Political Party Affiliation," by Jeffrey M. Jones, Jan. 28, 2009

Pew Research Center, "With Growing Awareness of Census, Most Ready to Fill Out Forms," March 16, 2010

Washington Indepedent, "Fellow Republicans Talk Down Bachmann From Her Census Protest," by David Weigel, July 1, 2009

U.S. Census Web site, 2010 Census by the Numbers

U.S. Census Web site, The Questions on the (2010) Form, One of the shortest forms in history - 10 Questions in 10 Minutes

U.S. Census Web site, Press release: "2010 Census Forms Arrive in 120 Million Mailboxes Across Nation," March 15, 2010

U.S. Census Web site, History: Questionnaires

U.S. Census Web site, Census 2010 Census Participation Rates, "No Evidence that Red States are Lagging on Census," by Nate Silver, March 31, 2010, "Michelle Bachmann claims Constitution only requires you to answer how many people are in your household," by Robert Farley, June 25, 2009

Campaign for Liberty, "Census: A Little Too Personal," by Ron Paul, March 9, 2010

Interview with Isaac W. Eberstein, a professor of sociology at Florida State University and director of the FSU's Center for Demography and Population Health, April 6, 2010

Interview with Frances Deviney, senior research associate at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, April 6, 2010

Interview with Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, April 6, 2010

Interview with demographer William O'Hare, April 6, 2010

Interview with Stacy Gimbel Vidal, Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau, April 5, 2010

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Rep. Patrick McHenry claims every census in history has asked for an individual’s race

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