Lake Como man upset about 'Negro' classification on census form

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Pedro Oliveira Jr.
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Jessie Jenkins said he couldn't believe it as he read his census form.

Under the race category, the form has a box labeled “Black, African-American or Negro.”

“A few days after that, I'm sitting at a bar, talking about this with the lady bartender and three or four guys start talking about it next to us,” Jenkins said.

“One of them made a comment, 'Well, I guess we can go ahead and call them Negroes now.'”

That comment illustrated what Jenkins feared could happen when a government document includes a word that for some people carries a heavy stigma.

“I don't want people to think it's OK to call African-Americans Negroes,” the Lake Como man said. “It's not just a word.”

For Jenkins, the word “Negro” is a constant reminder of a dark period in American history. It makes him think of his grandmother, whose birth certificate categorized her as such. It reminds him of stories of segregated communities and unequal treatment for blacks such as himself.

“I don't want my son to be going to school and have someone being comfortable coming up to him and saying, 'Hey Negro,'” Jenkins said.

Neil Deupree, chair of the Complete Count Committee in Rock County, said he wouldn't use the word “Negro” to describe a black person. It's not the preferred term, and he understands it's offensive to some people, he said.

“But I think there are people from another generation who may still identify with that word,” Deupree said.

That's the reason the word was used on the census form, U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves recently said on C-Span's “Washington Journal.”

The director said research by census staff revealed a portion of the older black population still classifies itself as Negro. And in the 2000 census, about 56,000 people wrote “Negro” along with marking the box for black or African-American.

Still, the director acknowledged the research was outdated and apologized.

“My speculation is that in 2020 that word will disappear,” Groves said.

Deupree understands the need to be inclusive.

“If having the word ‘Negro’ there means a few more people will identify and check the box, then I think that's good,” he said.

Janesville resident Robert Baldwin, 62, already has sent in his census form. Baldwin said he didn't notice the word.

“Seeing the word wouldn't have stopped me from filling out the form,” Baldwin said. “But do I find it offensive? Yes.”

“I guess the only thing I can say about it is that it's an old term, but there are a lot of old people in the country who still use that term.”

If somebody called him a Negro, Baldwin said, he would find it offensive and would probably correct the person who said it.

That's what Jenkins would do. He understands some older folks are used to being called Negroes. But in this day and age, Jenkins said, he hopes people will keep the word in the history books where it belongs.

“There's this negative energy that comes along with it from back in the day, back when it was racism, segregation,” Jenkins said. “It was heavy.”

Last updated: 1:41 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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