On Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau launched their campaign to count more than 300 million American residents. They are relying on cutting-edge technology and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to appeal to African-Americans and heighten awareness about the 2010 census.
Yet, one of the form’s 10 questions uses what many consider an outdated and offensive term, and may lead some African-Americans to ask just how far the country has come.
Question No. 9 on the form, which will be mailed out beginning March 15, asks: “What is Person 1’s race?”
The answer choices are: “White; Black, African-American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native.”
While the term “Negro” has appeared in previous census forms, some young or first-time African-American census participants may find it offensive, which could present a problem for the 2010 census campaign, which has focused on inclusion.
Shelly Lowe, a U.S. Census Bureau spokesperson, agrees that the use of “Negro” is antiquated, and says that the bureau was surprised to learn there still are people who prefer to be called by the term.
Lowe also noted that all of the census questions are “tested ad nauseam,” enough so that using the “Negro” term “outweighed the potential negatives.”
The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines the racial category of black or African-American as “a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa,” and further stipulates that terms such as “Haitian” or “Negro” can be used in addition to “black or African-American.”
The term was left on the 2010 form after a number of respondents to the 2000 census opted to write-in “Negro” when answering the question on race, census officials said.
Jeanne R. Stanley, a 78-year-old retiree in Richmond, Va., says she is not surprised that some blacks, particularly older blacks, prefer to be called a “Negro” as opposed to black or African-American.
“Some prefer it because of their complexion, whether they’re light-skinned or dark,” says Stanley, who routinely discusses such matters with colleagues her age. “Others still have a slave mentality. There are a lot of people who still have a color complex.”
The use of “Negro” to describe people of African descent was popular up until the 1960s. The civil rights movement during the late 1960s and 1970s led to the use of “black” or “Afro-American.” Jesse Jackson spearheaded the trend that blacks be called African-Americans in the late 1980s. The label pretty much has stuck, although many Americans of African descent still prefer “black.”
Many younger blacks find the term “Negro” insulting and demeaning.
“I find the word ‘Negro’ to be quite offensive when it comes to the census and separating and differentiating among races because of the history of the use of the word,” said Taryn Anthony, a 25-year old graduate student. “I’ve yet to hear someone use it in a respectable manner, so placing it on a census seems as yet another way to set back African-Americans.”
Others find it a perfect target for jokes.
“Well, if the census form authors are going to go so far as to include an the archaic term ‘Negro,’ why not put ‘Colored’ on there … just in case someone hadn’t graduated from that word usage,” said Patrick Riley, a New York-based television producer.
Cathy M. Jackson, Ph.D, a journalism and media studies professor at Norfolk State University, offered these thoughts:
“In the years I have taught and studied diversity or multiculturalism and the mass media, I have never read any studies that quantified a preference for the racial descriptor ‘Negro.’ However, after researching, I found that the Census Bureau doesn’t list ‘Negro’ as a separate category, but includes it in the choice of ‘African American, Black, or Negro.’”
Jackson notes that in a 1995 survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the Census Bureau, 3.28 percent of respondents wanted “Negro” used. On the other hand 1.09 percent wanted “Colored.”
She’s happy that the bureau did not use that “Colored” racial designator.
“I believe the Census Bureau has come a long way from the 1890 census when the racial categories include white, black, mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon,” Jackson said. She also noted that each change in the race categories is a sign of changing social relationships between people of different races in America.
Jackson says that although the U.S. Census Bureau still has problems, she’s happy that America is no longer considered a ‘melting pot.’
“Perhaps the bureau’s actions to seek approval of its racial categories is evidence that our ethnic and our cultural contributions are becoming recognized as a valuable part of this mosaic tapestry we call America,” she says.