Curator’s note: As of March 2020, apparently there is a census question that asks for further identification for those in the “white” category.
“White” has been a constant of the U.S. census.
Other racial categories for the national head count have come and gone over the centuries. But “white” has stuck ever since U.S. marshals went door to door by horseback for the first census in 1790, tallying up the numbers of “free white males” and “free white females,” plus “all other free persons” and “slaves.”
Census takers determined who counted as “white” or any other race. That changed in 1960, when U.S. residents were first allowed to self-report their race. Since then, just answering “white” has been enough to respond to the race question.
But the upcoming census in 2020 may ask those who identify as white to explore their family tree to share their ethnic background as well. Anyone who checks off the “white” box could also mark boxes for groups such as “German,” “Irish” and “Polish” or write in another option.