Census to Stop Counting Negroes

In a bold move, the Census Bureau has removed "Negro" from its racial categories.


In a bold move, the Census Bureau has removed “Negro” from its racial categories.

AP (“‘Negro’ will no longer be used on US Census surveys“):

After more than a century, the Census Bureau is dropping its use of the word “Negro” to describe black Americans in surveys.

Instead of the term that came into use during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, census forms will use the more modern labels “black” or “African-American”.

The change will take effect next year when the Census Bureau distributes its annual American Community Survey to more than 3.5 million U.S. households, Nicholas Jones, chief of the bureau’s racial statistics branch, said in an interview.

He pointed to months of public feedback and census research that concluded few black Americans still identify with being Negro and many view the term as “offensive and outdated.”

“This is a reflection of changing times, changing vocabularies and changing understandings of what race means in this country,” said Matthew Snipp, a sociology professor at Stanford University, who writes frequently on race and ethnicity. “For younger African-Americans, the term `Negro’ harkens back to the era when African-Americans were second-class citizens in this country.”

First used in the census in 1900, “Negro” became the most common way of referring to black Americans through most of the early 20th century, during a time of racial inequality and segregation. “Negro” itself had taken the place of “colored.” Starting with the 1960s civil rights movement, black activists began to reject the “Negro” label and came to identify themselves as black or African-American.

Still, the term has lingered, having been used by Martin Luther King Jr. in his speeches. It also remains in the names of some black empowerment groups that were established before the 1960s, such as the United Negro College Fund, now often referred to as UNCF.

For the 2010 census, the government briefly considered dropping the word “Negro” but ultimately decided against it, determining that a small segment, mostly older blacks living in the South, still identified with the term. But once census forms were mailed and some black groups protested, Robert Groves, the Census Bureau’s director at the time, apologized and predicted the term would be dropped in future censuses.

I’m not sure that the usage of the term by a man murdered in 1968—forty-five plus years ago—in his speeches is evidence that a term has “lingered.” Indeed, I’ve been around a little longer than that and have no recollection of “negro” being used in anything but historical or ironic context.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Peabody says:

    You could look at the Duke bros. in the 1983 film “Tradiing Places”. Describing Eddie Murphy’s character, Don Ameche crudely says, “Of COURSE there’s something wrong with him! He’s a negro. He’s probably been stealing since he could crawl.”

  2. JKB says:

    A few weeks ago, Arnold Kling linked to a clip from the mid-1970s of Milton Friedman discussing the detrimental impact of the minimum wage. In it he uses both “black” and “Negro” to when discussing the impact on “African-Americans”. Some loon in the comments got bent about the use of the term, even though as evidenced on the Census form, it is still in official use, even though it has fallen out of conventional use.

    BTW, not long ago I ran across a story of a near riot at a school. Once witness reported that it was between the Somali-Americans and the African-Americans without noticing the irony. So we may soon need a new term, yet again as more and more recent immigrants from the African continent grace our shores. Not to mention the story of a schoolboy, a white immigrant born in Africa, got in lots of trouble for checking the African-American block on some school form even though to him it was a rational description of himself.

    Perhaps,,ancestral-African-American? No that won’t work since the mitochondrial ancestor to all of us comes from Africa? This race stuff is getting complicated.

  3. john personna says:

    A color matching strip would be funny.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:

    Of course then you have seasonality issues. Many of us a darker in summer. But I’m confident an algorithm could be created.

  5. sam says:

    Supererogatory will be along any moment to tell us that this yet more evidence that the end is nigh.

  6. Tyrell says:

    Why even have categories? Why not just count people? No race or ethnicity. Why is that needed?
    Who uses it and why? It just seems so unnecessary. That is why I don’t answer that part. The “racial” groupings that they used are not accurate according to anthropology anyway. Just more ado about nothing. Drop the racial questions.

  7. Kylopod says:

    When I worked for the Census in 2010, my (white) supervisor basically told us (a mostly white audience) to avoid using the term when interviewing black respondents. So I’m not even sure the Census’s use of the term had much practical effect except to generate discomfort and awkwardness. The rationale given by the Census was that there still are older African Americans who are more used to the term than they are to “black,” much less “African American,” but I’m skeptical that even they would prefer to hear it today from some white stranger representing the federal government.

    Being in my 30s, I can’t specifically remember hearing anyone ever use the term. I did once hear the term “colored boy” when I visited Utah and was talking to a woman who was describing a friend of her son’s from Maryland (my home state).

    As a Jew, I’ve occasionally met people who have referred to me as a “Hebrew.” Similar to “Negro,” “Hebrew” as a synonym for “Jew” was once considered respectable language (mostly in the late 19th and early 20th century, partly in reaction to the negative use of “Jew”), and also, like “Negro,” it is the source of a slur (“Hebe”). Anyone using the term today is going to sound ignorant; however, it isn’t quite as sensitive an issue, probably because it doesn’t carry the same legacy of racial subordination that “Negro” does. When there was a court case in New York in 2003 involving outdated laws concerning the sale of kosher food, the phrase “Orthodox Hebrew religious requirements“–indicating the legislation’s age–provoked only snickering from the rabbis in attendance.