The U.S. Census

Beginning in 1790, at the beginning of each decade, the U.S. government conducts a national Census, and every single Census has looked different.  As the Census website points out, “Censuses are not conducted in a vacuum. They occur amidst internal and external crisis, shifts in cultural interests, and events that become ‘defining moments’ for each generation. Census data reflect the growth of the population as well as the changing values and interests of the American people.”  Though the Census may seem like nothing more than a tool for gathering demographic information, the questions asked and responses received have major implications for how other institutions collect data and are used to determine the legislative voice communities will have as well as the funding  communities receive (including schools).  The questions asked on the Census reflect national trends and prevailing ideas about what information comprises an individual’s identity and what data is important for governmental decision-making.

The 2010 Census is just months away, and a look at the questions that will be asked on this decade’s Census brings up some interesting issues about how we define characteristics like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.  The Census form can be previewed here.  Below is a closer look at some of the questions asked on this year’s census, with some thought provoking questions about what those questions mean about who we are and how we are represented.


Questions 5 and 6: Relationships and Gender

This decade’s census asks about the sex of the respondent and provides only two possible answers, male or female.  This means that transgender, transsexual, and intersex individuals may not be able to represent their true identity on the census form.  Also, it prevents the country from gathering valuable data about people who don’t fit into the binary gender construct.  In fact, because  the census does not gather any information about the LGBTQI population, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is offering free stickers allowing people to mark their LGBTQI status on the census and to advocate for making this population count.

On a more positive note, for the first time in history the census will now count married same-sex couples.  Up until this year’s census, it was regarded as a mistake when same-sex couples marked “husband or wife” on their forms and their response was changed to “unmarried partner.”


Questions 8 and 9: Race and Ethnicity

The first question asked about race and ethnicity on the Census asks respondents to identify whether or not they are of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.”  People who check yes have the option of identifying as “Mexican, Mexican Am., or Chicano”, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or “another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” with the ability to write in their country of origin.  This question lumps together some very different groups and identities and may mean some people will find themselves checking boxes that include terms and descriptors they are uncomfortable with.

The Census website explains that this question is asked because “State and local governments may use the data to help plan and administer bilingual programs for people of Hispanic origin.”  This begs the question: does checking one of these boxes provide accurate information about a person’s native language or language proficiencies?  Also, this information might lead one to wonder why the Census doesn’t attempt to track English language learners from other backgrounds though this would seem to be important information for developing bilingual programs.  For example, Denver Public Schools reports that over 132 languages are spoken in their district alone; this is valuable information to consider for their English language acquisition services.

The next question about race provides a number of options and respondents are allowed to check more than one box.  This question has been generating a lot of controversy as the term “Negro” has now been added to the box for Black Americans and African Americans.  Many find this term incredibly offensive, but the Census Bureau explains the decision by saying that in the 2000 Census 56,000 people wrote in “Negro” to describe their race.  Regardless, it seems likely that many people who strongly object to the term will be expected to check the box.

The rest of the options for the question are confusing and inconsistent with some countries of origin listed and some not.  For example, people of African origin only have the option of checking the box labeled “Black, African Am., and Negro” and people of European origin only have the option of checking “White” though it is possible to write in a country of origin.  Some Asian and Pacific Island countries are listed, but many Asian Americans will have to check a box titled “Other Asian” or “Other Pacific Islander” and write in their country of origin.  Individuals choosing to write in their countries of origin will have limited writing space and in many cases will only be able to list one country.

Finally, there is no category listed specifically for Arab Americans.  Though the Arab American Institute Foundation estimates the Arab American population for the U.S. at approximately 3.5 million, all respondents whose families originate from Arab countries will have to write in their race or ethnicity.

For more information about the 2010 Census and Census history go to

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are there any questions on the Census that make you uncomfortable?  Why?  What do you think needs to change about those questions?
  2. What potential problems do you see with information from the Census being used to determine school funding?  What benefits do you see?
  3. The 2010 Census is the shortest in the history of the U.S., do you feel this is a good thing or a bad thing?  What questions would you like to see added to it?

Thank you for subscribing to our weekly discussion, feel free to forward it to your friends and colleagues or encourage them to subscribe here.  Please visit the Center for Culturally Responsive Urban Education (CRUE) website at for more information and resources on educational equity.




Culturally Responsive Urban Education
1380 Lawrence Street, 6th Floor
Denver, CO 80204