The Representations of Race in the Decennial Censuses of the United States from 1790-2010

31 Pages Posted: 23 Nov 2014 Last revised: 25 Jul 2015

Date Written: November 23, 2014


The importance of race as a social category in the United States is evident in how the federal government over time has defined the racial categories on the census forms starting with the first census in 1790. Minority groups have always contested these official categorizations (Miller, 2007; Simon & Piche, 2012) because these categorizations were at variance with how these groups defined themselves. These categorizations are even more problematic because there is usually no single racial definition within the various racial groups in the United States. Moreover, these racial definitions are influenced by the history of White racial privilege and discrimination against non-Whites. Race is a major feature of American society (Philogene, 2004a; Zinn, 2005). Therefore, studying the evolving categorizations of race on the census forms in the United States is a study of the history of the cultural representations of race which is the objective of this chapter.

The evolution and expansion of racial categories suggest that race as a social category is not fixed. The Jews and the Irish from Europe for example, were not considered White when the first major waves of Jewish and Irish immigrants came to the United States despite their white physicality. They were subsequently accepted as Whites in the society (Brodkin, 1998; Ignatiev, 2008). The decennial censuses of the United States since 1790 provide historical and contemporary evidence that race is a floating signifier (Hall, 1997b). This chapter explicates the content and evolution of these dynamic racial representations. The chapter starts with a discussion of how race has been represented in the United States followed by a discussion of social representation theory (SRT) which frames the study. Next, the method is outlined and the findings presented and discussed using SRT.

Suggested Citation

Charles, Christopher, The Representations of Race in the Decennial Censuses of the United States from 1790-2010 (November 23, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Christopher Charles (Contact Author)

University of the West Indies ( email )

Kingston 7
Mona, Mona Kingston 7

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