'Negro, Please!': Age-Old Term Creeps Onto Census
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
As we said, the controversy over Senator Reid's comments comes as another branch of the government is taking heat for using the term Negro.
The 2010 census will continue to offer Negro as an option in designating race along with black and African-American. But some people are not feeling that word. They think Negro is outdated, tired and even offensive. We recently discussed this issue with Matthew Snipp. He's a professor of sociology and the director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. He's consulting with the Census Bureau about ways to elicit more accurate information about race and identity.
Professor Snipp said he understood why some people reacted so strongly to the word Negro being offered on the 2010 census.
Professor MATTHEW SNIPP (Sociology, Stanford University): I'm not surprised at all because these kinds of issues do mean a lot to people in terms of how they identify themselves. And, in fact, as I recall, this concern was raised I think in 1990 and again in 2000. So, it's not really a new concern, but it's probably gaining more salience as time passes.
MARTIN: We invited Census to participate in our conversation, by the way. They declined to join us but the Census Bureau did speak to another media outlet. Spokesman Jack Martin said that the use of the term was intended as a term of inclusion because many older Americans still identify themselves that way.
Prof. SNIPP: I think that's right. The census is this amazing event, which is intended to include every person residing within our nation within the time that the census is taken, and they periodically go back and they try to identify terms and language that resonate with different segments of the American population.
And what they've found over the years and continue to find is there's a segment of the population for whom Negro is a resonant, acceptable term. I think they tend to be mostly older Americans, you know, more often in the south than in other parts of the country. But because it is an older generation of persons who identify as Negro, I could see this term disappearing in 2020 or 2030.
MARTIN: Have other terms disappeared? Did "colored" ever make an appearance?
Prof. SNIPP: Yes, as I recall it did. In 1890s they talked about Mulattoes, octoroons and quadroons. Asian Indians used to be referred to as Hindus.
MARTIN: Interesting. I was going to ask you that, were there other groups for whom terms have changed?
Prof. SNIPP: Yes, Hindus are one. Mexicans was included as a part of the race question in 1930, and then disappeared and reappeared in 1980 as a separate item.
MARTIN: It is an interesting question because on the one hand, you do want people to see themselves in the form and thus respond to it, but I can't think of anybody who uses the term Negro anymore. I mean, it's - the only reference I can think of is: Are you familiar with the expression "Negro, please"?
Prof. SNIPP: No, I'm not.
MARTIN: No, it's meant to call somebody out and to say you're just - you're making no sense.
Prof. SNIPP: Yeah.
MARTIN: Yeah, by definition, "African-American, please" just doesn't work. I don't know why. So are there any other groups, to your knowledge, who take issue with the language in the form right now, people who want to be in or out?
Prof. SNIPP: Back in the 1990s, there were a group of Taiwanese who wanted to have a category of Taiwan on the box in addition to the box for Chinese. I mean, the census race question is a curious combination of nationalities and national origins, as well as racial and ethnic heritage categories, and it's a long story as to how that came to be, but that's what it is.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask what box you check? And do you - are you satisfied with the box that they have for you?
Prof. SNIPP: More or less. I check the box for American Indian-Alaska Native, because I'm Oklahoma Cherokee and Choctaw. There is but a single line to identify my tribal affiliation, and I can never squeeze the entire Cherokee-Choctaw piece onto the spaces that they've allotted.
MARTIN: Okay, well, I'm going with African-American.
Prof. SNIPP: Okay.
MARTIN: Okay, that works for me. Matthew Snipp is a Stanford University sociology professor. He's director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. He joined us by phone from Palo Alto. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Prof. SNIPP: It's been my pleasure.
MARTIN: After our conversation with Professor Snipp, we did receive a response from the Census Bureau. The Census noted that in the year 2000, some 56,000 respondents wrote in the term Negro in response to the question on race, even though the term was included in the category label for a check box, and the Census noted that a test embedded in the 2010 census will measure the effect of removing the term on reports about a person's racial identity, and the results will be used to inform the design for the future census.
To read the whole statement, please check out our Web site. Just go to the program page of npr.org and select TELL ME MORE.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.