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Why did the early Census count by race?

The Census has been asking the race of each resident since  1790, when the first Census was conducted. It was required by the Constitution to count free individuals and slaves separately when determining the number of congressional seats each state would get, since each slave counted as three-fifths of a person by the Three-Fifths Compromise. Many people argued that it only made sense to also include a person’s race in the count.

Scientists were among those who fervently argued for race to be counted. One example is Josiah Nott, who in the mid-1800s tried to prove that different races represented separate species. Nott and others urged that the Census include questions about mixture between blacks and whites and the number of children born to each woman. They ultimately wanted the data from the Census in order to be able to support their racist ideas and to justify laws preventing interracial marriage.

Although once used to support discriminatory practices, race data collected by the Census is now used to help enforce civil rights laws. In the 1920s, Census data was used to establish quotas, ultimately blocking immigration from Africa and Asia and favoring immigration from Northern European countries. In the 1940s, it was used to identify areas where large numbers of Japanese Americans lived and to help justify the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in internment camps.

During the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, the use of racial data to push discriminatory practices shifted instead to using racial data to identify (and hopefully remedy) discriminatory practices (the image below depicts a civil rights demonstration in Oklahoma in 1963). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin illegal in public places, ended school segregation, and helped to protect voting rights. Now, we can use the race data collected in the Census to  compare counts to minority representation in jobs, education, and financial opportunities to help reveal whether the civil rights laws are being enforced. As the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Kenneth Prewitt, argued, “If African Americans are 12 percent of the population but only 5 percent of college entrants or 1 percent of the nation’s business leaders, they are under-represented in these areas, indicating the possibility of discrimination.”


Over time, the specific races that have been counted has evolved significantly. View the infographic to see how the Census racial categories changed between 1790 and 2010.

This is taken from We encourage you to visit the page where you can navigate through different years to compare them to 2010. Specifically, focus on the years during the Civil Rights Era! Reflect upon how you would be counted has changed over time as you navigate through the years.