In the past, federal standards for collection of racial and ethnic data limited the flexibility of federal statistical and program agencies to collect data reflecting the changing racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. population. The 2000 census marked a radical departure from past practices in the collection of racial data. Specifically, the 2000 census is the first major implementation of revised guidelines for the collection of racial and ethnic data issued by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB). These guidelines instruct federal agencies collecting data on race and ethnicity to allow respondents to “mark one or more races to indicate what this person considers himself/herself to be,” thus relaxing the past practice of limiting racial classification of individuals in the United States to one and only one of a few mutually exclusive racial categories.1 The full implications of this change are yet to be understood.

This chapter provides additional background on the manner in which race and ethnicity data were collected in the 2000 census. After presenting a brief history of the collection of race and ethnicity data (8-A), we discuss the standardization of the federal collection of race and ethnicity data and changes therein, as embodied in the OMB guidelines (8-B). We discuss differences between the 1990 and 2000 census questions on race and Hispanic origin, the implications of those differences, and the results (8-C). After examining the quality of the race and ethnicity data collected in 2000, comparisons are made, when possible, with the quality of those data from the 1990 census. Finally, we discuss the implications of the findings for the collection of racial and ethnic data in future censuses (8-D).


Since its inception in 1790, every United States census has included questions on race. The federal collection of data on race and ethnicity has its origins in the balance of power between the North and the South when the United States was first established. The original text of Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution tied the allocation of representatives in Congress to population counts; the


The few instances prior to 2000 of including multiracial categories in census responses all appeared before the shift from enumerator-identification to self-identification of race in 1970. “Mulatto” was included in 1850–1890, 1910, and 1920, “quadroon” and “octoroon” in 1890, and “part Hawaiian” in 1960.

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