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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop 6 - The Census: Who We Think We Arehomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 6:  Lectures & Activities

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Lecture Transcript One:
The Census and American Identity

Lecturer: Professor Evelynn Hammonds

photo of Evelynn Hammonds

This afternoon I wanted to talk about the census in a number of ways, but mostly focusing on the ways in which a historian of science might use such a thing as the census to talk about, in particular, racial categories. The United States was the first nation in the world to institute a regular census of the population, beginning in 1790, and so the census can thus be used as a historical document itself to examine two centuries or more of American life. It maps wars; it maps economic, cultural, and social changes that have occurred over time.

So the history of the census can be thought of, as historian Margot Anderson talks about it, as the history of the politics of population, so not just what the population is, but what we mean by the American population—indeed, what it means to be American, in many respects. Most of us are unaware of how the data from the census contributes to how we understand debates about taxation, debates about voting rights and political representation, and, in particular, debates about race and ethnicity.

And so I want to begin by just saying—just going over a little bit about what is the census. You know, what kind of thing is it? It's both a kind of enormous organizational, intellectual, and financial enterprise. It's a very complex enterprise involving collection of many kinds of information on families, on households, on housing consumer patterns, work, mobility, race, and ethnicity. And all these data are used to describe and monitor the social and economic and cultural conditions of the American population.

Now, this counting of the bodies to find out how many people there are here is also crucial for the apportionment of Congress and for state legislature, so we need it to run the government the way we want it to be run. So every 10 years, the United States Bureau of the Census conducts a population census, and currently, all residents receive a form in the mail or a visit from a census enumerator. And there are two kinds of forms. There's a short form that we use, which really just has the basic information—you know, name, sex, marital status, ethnic background, relationship to the household head, and just some very fundamental kinds of things. Then there's a long form which only a very small percentage of the population actually gets, and it has more detail in it—the style of life, work, income, housing, educational level, ancestry, the language that's spoken at home, veteran status, disability, work status, place of work, housing details, and information about income.

And once you fill out these forms—either the short form or the long form—it goes to the Census Bureau. The data's entered into a computer and is cross-tabulated with millions of other records about Americans, and then that data is published for the nation. It's distributed to states; it's also distributed to local areas.

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