UMC Links

U of U Report Examines Utah’s Race and Ethnicity Data Over 150-Year Period

December 11, 2002 — According to census data, from 1990 to 2000, the population of Utah grew by over half a million. In those ten years there was a 117 percent increase in the minority population of Utah-from 151,596 in 1990 to 328,904 in 2000.

This means during that decade, one in three new Utah residents was a minority person. Of particular significance during that time frame was the more than doubling (138 percent) of the Hispanic population, two-thirds of whom identify themselves as Mexican.

Pam Perlich, a researcher with the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, in the David S. Eccles School of Business, became interested in these trends and, over the course of 18 months, examined 150 years of historical census data for various races and ethnicities in Utah-and in Utah counties-to see how the populations had changed. The resultant project, just off the press, is a 24-page monograph titled Utah Minorities: The Story Told by 150 Years of Census Data.

“As far as I know, nobody had ever put together the county data for Utah going that far back,” Perlich says. “I became interested in why the government tracked race and how they measured it.”

Constructed from numerous sources, including books, old documents, computer files and census data, the exhaustive study outlines the general race and ethnicity results of the 2000 census, summarizes changes in the federal government’s definitions of race and ethnicity since 1850 (the year census information began being recorded in the territory of Utah) and reviews county-level historical census data for Utah.

In the 1850 territorial census, only three race categories were possible: Black (free or slave), “Mulatto” (free or slave) and White. That census recorded 50 blacks in Utah-26 slaves and 24 “free colored” persons, who lived mostly in Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties. Of these, 22 were in route to California and not Utah residents. The study, which includes many charts and tables integral to the report, explains, “These distinctions were made for apportionment purposes: free persons and ‘taxed Indians’ counted fully while slaves each counted as three-fifths.”

Perlich says the “three-fifths compromise”-or how Black slaves were counted for congressional apportionment -became more controversial with the approach of the Civil War because slaveholders wanted their slaves counted as full persons so they could have more representation in Congress.

“The politics of race and slavery got wrapped up in the census. It’s interesting how the census data is a record of the legacy left behind about ways of thinking,” Perlich notes. “After the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the number of race categories exploded because people wanted to be counted for civil rights purposes so they could show discrimination in housing or employment.”

Today the federal government defines the following six major race groups: White, Black or African American, American Indian and Native Alaskan, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander and Some Other Race. The 2000 Census allowed for multiple race selections. Ethnicity, a completely separate category, is currently defined by the government as Hispanic or Non-Hispanic, terms invented by the federal government. However, these definitions are problematic and don’t accurately represent the complex and varied ways that people classify themselves, says Perlich.

Perlich readily acknowledges that the subjects and definitions of race and ethnicity are highly debated, and she is quick to note that the data story is not a true history of the peoples of Utah.

Still, Perlich takes the raw data, even with the difficulties of census categories changing over time, and shows the shifting views and politics of race and ethnicity. More important-especially to demographers, educators, grant applicants and other special interest advocacy groups-are the figures that show the population changes in every Utah county as recorded in each decennial census from 1850 through 2000.

“The most important message of the study is the significant increase we have seen in Utah in the last 10 years in the minority populations,” says Perlich, who specializes in population studies for Utah.

“In the past Utah has been perceived by many to be a homogenous, mostly White state,” Perlich says. “But the category of ‘White’ is deceptive because it portrays us as being more homogeneous than we’ve ever been. There were ethnic categories that weren’t differentiated as anything other than White, but hidden within that category are whole groups of people like the Greeks, Italians, Yugoslavs, Turkish, Egyptians, Latinos and many others. In 1910, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming had the nation’s largest concentrations of Greeks relative to the size of the population.

“What became clear in this study is how minorities have come to the state when there’s been a demand for labor-to build railroads, work in mines, the defense or agriculture sectors, and, more recently, to build I-15 and construction projects. We couldn’t have put on the Olympics without their substantial contributions,” Perlich says.

The 2000 Census shows that the highest minority share of all counties in Utah is in San Juan County, where 55.7 percent of the population is American Indian.

The 24-page monograph of 150 years of decennial census data for Utah’s counties also draws these conclusions:
–Economic cycles greatly affect migration flows, with economic growth associated with increases in Utah’s diversity and, conversely, economic slowdowns associated with declines in diversity.
–Political forces affect migration patterns. The most recent major immigration wave was facilitated by changes in immigration laws favoring family reunification, employment-based immigration, and preferences given to political refugees.
–Established networks create long-term migration flows. New migrant communities become receiving communities for additional family and affiliate arrivals.
–The LDS Church has greatly affected migration to Utah. Proselytizing efforts of the church have brought diverse populations to the state. Because Salt Lake City is the headquarters for the international church, it continues to attract diverse populations to Utah.
–Utah will become more diverse over time. While Utah will continue to be less diverse than the nation in the foreseeable future, the forces contributing to immigration to the country will continue to bring more diverse populations to Utah.

The report is published as a public service by the U’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. To obtain a free copy of Utah Minorities: The Story Told by 150 Years of Census Data, call 801-581-3358. The monograph is also available on the Web at