Primary Sources: The 1940 Census on "White"

| Mon Aug. 18, 2008 8:49 PM EDT

From AP comes the news that by 2042 whites will no longer be the majority ethnic group in the United States:

By 2050, whites will make up 46 percent of the population and blacks will make up 15 percent, a relatively small increase from today. Hispanics, who make up about 15 percent of the population today, will account for 30 percent in 2050, according to the new projections. Asians, which make up about 5 percent of the population, are projected to increase to 9 percent by 2050.

What does this mean? Historically, not a damn thing.

According to the current census a white person is:

A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as "White" or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Near Easterner, Arab, or Polish.

This means that someone whose parents were born in Morocco, who looks like this, would be white. Someone with parents from Argentina, who might look like this, would not be.

But it hasn't always been that way. Race is an arbitrary classification. The first census, in 1790, broke the population into exactly three racial groups: "free whites," "other persons," and "slaves."

By the 1910 census Americans were instructed to:

Write "W" for white; "B" for black; "Mu" for mulatto; "Ch" for Chinese; "Jp" for Japanese; "In" for Indian. For all persons not falling within one of these classes, write "Ot" (for other), and write on the left-hand margin of the schedule the race of the person so indicated. For census purposes, the term "black" (B) includes all persons who are evidently full-blooded negroes, while the term "mulatto" (Mu) includes all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood.

The 1940 census demanded that Americans sort their identity according to the following Byzantine racial classification system:

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Write "W" for white; "Neg" for Negro; "In" for Indian; "Chi" for Chinese; "Jp" for Japanese; "Fil" for Filipino; "Hi" for Hindu; and "Kor" for Korean. For a person of any other race, write the race in full. Mexicans-Mexicans are to be regarded as white unless definitely of Indian or other nonwhite race. Negroes-A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned as Negro, no matter how small a percentage of Negro blood. Both black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction. A person of mixed Indian and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, unless the Indian blood very definitely predominates and he is universally accepted in the community as an Indian. Indians-A person of mixed white and Indian blood should be returned as an Indian, if enrolled on an Indian agency or reservation roll, or if not so enrolled, if the proportion of Indian blood is one-fourth or more, or if the person is regarded as an Indian in the community where he lives. Mixed Races-Any mixture of white and nonwhite should be reported according to the nonwhite parent. Mixtures of nonwhite races should be reported according to the race of the father, except that Negro-Indian should be reported as Negro.

Further immigration made this sort of distinction complicated. The US never knows how to classify new immigrants. What race are Filipinos? How about people from the Dominican Republic? How about Barack Obama? At some points in American history the Germans, Greeks, Hispanics, Irish, Italians, Slavs, or Ashkenazi Jews were not considered white people.

With these definitions, only about half of my ancestors, for instance, were "white." Using the original census definitions and the assumptions underling them, whites haven't been the majority since the 19th century. Even if you're white now, your ancestors probably weren't.

The census is pretty open about this, too. The office explains that:

The Census Bureau complies with the Office of Management and Budget's standards for maintaining, collecting, and presenting data on race, which were revised in October 1997. They generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country. They do not conform to any biological, anthropological or genetic criteria.

So by 2050, we really have no idea how white the US population will be. It all depends on how we choose to define it.

—Daniel Luzer

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