(A Lack of) Common Sense in the Census: Why the Term “Negro” Isn’t Appropriate

“Barack Obama, our nation’s first Negro president.” “Halle Berry, the first Negro actress to win Best Actress at the Academy Awards.” “Ruth Simmons, the first Negro president of an Ivy League University.” Yes … that all sounds terribly out of place, outdated, and offensive to me, too. While the term “Negro” may have been appropriate in the United States in the 1960s, it is 2013 and apparently, someone needs to inform the U.S. Census Bureau that it is no longer appropriate to refer to Americans of African ancestry as “Negroes.”

Negro Census

My confusion and anger at my nation’s government arose last Monday, when I received an email from the housing department notifying me that I had been randomly selected by the U.S. Census Bureau to participate in the American Group Quarters Survey. Since it was the start of the work week and midterms had finally finished, needless to say, I was not overly excited for this inconvenience, but the email stated, “We realize that this is a busy time of year, however completing the survey is required by law.” Therefore, on Tuesday, I sat down to fill out the form and realized, thankfully, it was relatively short and would only take about thirty minutes. I began to answer the standard questions: name, date of birth, age, etc. Then, I reached the section on race and ethnicity. Personally, I do not have a problem “checking the box” Black and/or African American on various forms and surveys because I believe the information is generally utilized with good intentions, i.e. aims to increase diversity in homogenous spaces or efforts to lessen the impact of historical, systematic oppression of minorities in this country concerning the workforce, education, and various other fields. With this perspective in mind, I skimmed over the few sentences outlining the instructions for how to complete the section on racial and/or ethnic background because “checking the box” seems like relatively self-explanatory action and one of which I had accomplished several times before today. As I went to choose the applicable option for myself, I was not met by the usual “Black and/or African American” but rather, “Black, African Am., or Negro.”

My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. I could not believe that a formal, United States government-issued document listed “Negro” as an option, alongside Black and African American, for Americans of African ancestry to choose as a racial identification. After I called my parents, and full disclosure, had a good laugh at the sheer absurdity at the term’s presence on a national survey, I shared my surprise with my Facebook friends and felt comforted by their solidarity, shown through the amount of likes my status received and a witty, yet telling response or two. Despite the amusement often accompanied by disbelief, my humor at the situation slowly began to dissipate, replaced by irritation and anger.

Civil Rights

In 2010, U.S. Census Bureau director Robert Groves stated, “The intent of every word on the race and ethnicity questions is to be as inclusive as possible so that all of us could see a word here that rings a bell for us …” but the term “Negro”, for many Black and/or African Americans, rings negative connotations and evokes imagery of racial segregation, police brutality, and a lack of civil rights. While the term “Negro” may have been appropriate in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the word often in his speeches, it should no longer be a term used today, especially by the United States government, to identify Americans of African ancestry, any more than the term “colored” would be considered appropriate. Maybe the incorporation of “Negro” in the description was made in good intentions, in an effort to promote full inclusivity, but the road of good intentions does not always lead to equally good results.

In Groves’ Director’s blog, he states in Census 2000, the usage of “Negro” was based on “research in the late 1990’s that showed there was an older cohort of African-Americans who self-identified as “Negro.” Surprisingly, about 56,000 persons took the time to write in under the “some other race” category the word “Negro.” Above half of them were less than 45 years of age in 2000. “By 2010, unpublished census data provided to the AP show that number had declined to roughly 36,000.” There are about 38 million Americans of African ancestry in the United States, the 36,000 who choose to identify as “Negro” make up around .09 percent of the total Black population and thus, the U.S. Census Bureau thought it only fair to accommodate this .09 percent? To clarify, if a person of African ancestry wishes to refer to themselves as a Negro, who am I to stop them? They may have their reasons, ones of which I admittedly cannot understand, for preferring that particular term but, in my opinion, the U.S. government failed in their responsibility to accommodate the other 99.91 percent of Black and/or African-Americans who do not self-identify as Negroes but were compelled to do so since the full choice is “Black, African Am., or Negro.”


I cannot comprehend how, in 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau can even begin to sensibly rationalize their use of the word “Negro” in the decennial census and related supplementary censuses (like the American Community Survey (ACS) through which I received the Group Quarters Survey), when Groves states, “my review of our other demographic surveys showed that we don’t use the term in them. A few calls around the country showed that the term is not used in most other household surveys.” How, and why, then has the presence of “Negro” endured in the decennial census and related surveys? Have years of progress and change not made it evident to the government that it is inappropriate to refer to nearly 12.6 percent of the American population by a term which originated nearly 500 years ago to when Portuguese and Spanish explorers used their languages’ word for black to describe the people of sub-Saharan Africa. It amazes me that it took census research, in addition to months of negative feedback, for the U.S. Census Bureau to catch up to the rest of the country in realizing that the contemporary use of the word “Negro” (especially in official government surveys) completely disregards the struggles Black and/or African Americans endured to advance beyond a name given to us placed upon us nearly half a century ago.

As of today, the Census Bureau states the term will be removed from the race and ethnicity portion of the ACS and the decennial census next year, as an immediate removal would damage the validity of the 2010 census. When I first saw “Negro” as an option in the Group Quarters Survey, before my anger seeped through, I was initially shocked and the “good American” in me tried to quickly think of any justification, any rationale, that would make the contemporary use of the word “Negro” seem acceptable and I could not find one, because there isn’t one. The only reason “Negro” is still included on the U.S. Census and related surveys is due to a complete lack of common sense on behalf of the U.S. government to acknowledge progress and the changing of the tides with regards to race in this country.

-Melissa Mabry, Slant Staff Writer

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3 thoughts on “(A Lack of) Common Sense in the Census: Why the Term “Negro” Isn’t Appropriate

  1. Pingback: The U.S. Census is at it again | The Arab Daily News

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