Has the Census Evolved?

02 Nov

Faceless by Desi Girls on the Rise (from South Asian Youth Action). Created by Smrati, Lubaba, Ishrat, Surbjeet, Kamaljeet and Sadia, Faceless is a mural mosaic representing the variety of voices that compose the experience of South Asian American Woman.

by Emily Vallerga, Fall 2012 Intern

As part of my research for the upcoming Indian American Heritage Project exhibition Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, I have been looking at how Indian Americans in the U.S. have been categorized and counted by the official U.S. Census.  I started in 1890, when the first critical mass of Indian immigrants arrived in the U.S., and searched through the decades, ending in 2010.

Here is what I found:

Click to download PDF

From 1890-2010, the U.S. Census made different attempts to define “race”. In the early censuses, “color” was a category and nonwhites were further categorized by “race” or national origin. For example, Asian Indians, regardless of religious affiliation, were identified as Nonwhite “Hindu” between 1910-1930. Interestingly, from 1940-1970, Indian Americans were completely ignored. From 1980-2010, Asian Indian was created as a category.

1980 marked a turning point as Asian Indians were no longer considered “other.” The Census Bureau has long used nationality to create the categories of “race.” However, these categories are also created with specific attention to whether or not these “races” can be included in the “white” category. For example, Asian Indians are perceived as dark skinned, however they are not considered to be “black” or “African American.” In order to classify Asian Indians, the Census Bureau created an additional racial category, and thus they relied on the national origin, Asian Indian.

It is fascinating that some racial categories are based on color while others refer specifically to national origin. As our society’s understanding of race continues to evolve, will this continue to be the way we describe and track identity?

Emily Vallerga, a recent graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, is an intern with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Indian American Heritage Project this semester.


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