A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

A Racialist’s Census

Stephan Thernstrom

In the 2000 census, for the first time, Americans could identify themselves as belonging to more than one race. This change, while significant, was not the first time census racial categories had shifted: In the early part of the twentieth century, Americans were asked to select simply between “white” and “Negro and other races.”

Much of the impetus for the 2000 census multiracial category came from the parents of multirace children. It is hard to chart the growth in the number of multiracial children in the United States, because the census did not gather that data. But fewer than half a million American children lived in “mixedrace” families in 1970. By 1990 almost two million (or about 4 percent of America’s children) had parents drawn from different racial groups. Many of these parents did not want their children counted as belonging to only one race.

New understandings of “race” supported this change, as well. As Stephan Thernstrom notes below, the nineteenth-century notion that humans are divided into distinct biological races has been thoroughly discredited, and the single-race designations seemed uncomfortably reminiscent of the old Jim Crow “one-drop-of-blood” definition of race.

What seems a reasonable response to changing demographic realities and social understandings, however, became quite controversial. Census data is not gathered only to provide a portrait of the nation; it is meant as hard data for government policy and planning. Many who were concerned with questions of social justice and economic equality feared that the new census categories would undercount America’s racial minorities and thus lessen their political power. Caught in a bind, the Clinton administration created a compromise.

In the following article from the conservative National Review, historian and social commentator Stephan Thernstrom compares the attempts of civil rights organizations to maintain single-race categories to the Jim Crow laws of the early twentieth century. Thernstrom’s argument is in part, a brief against

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