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Putting Race in a Box
May 28, 2010 5:45 AM   Subscribe

Racebox.org A history of racial classification on the U.S. Census from 1790 to 2010.
posted by jonp72 (43 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, that is really interesting. Even back in 1930, they differentiated among Chinese, Japanese and Korean and in 1890 they differentiated between Chinese and Japanese. (The lack of distinct labels before those dates does not necessarily mean they were intended to be lumped together.)
posted by DU at 5:53 AM on May 28, 2010


Why did they drop "Mexican" between 1930 and 1940? Everything else looks the same except for that one change.
posted by vacapinta at 6:00 AM on May 28, 2010


Hindu (!) has a run from 1930-1940, disappears, then Asian Indian shows up in 1980. I wonder what the motivation was to briefly catalog the South Asian population, albeit with quite the Victorian phrasing.
posted by bendybendy at 6:13 AM on May 28, 2010


Why did they drop "Mexican" between 1930 and 1940?

Perhaps something was in the air?
posted by vhsiv at 6:19 AM on May 28, 2010


Form design! Race politics! Best post ever!
posted by The Devil Tesla at 6:20 AM on May 28, 2010


"Names of slave owners." Wow.
posted by rtha at 6:20 AM on May 28, 2010


It's amazing to see a box simply marked "slaves". Somehow I figured it would be couched in some apologetic euphemism: "indentured employees" or "bonded servants" or something. But no, it's just bald, honest slaves.

"Fuck you, I'm a slaveowner. I own people."
posted by CaseyB at 7:16 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know folks must be awfully racist when they come up with the label "octoroon".
posted by Go Banana at 7:29 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Census records of slaves and figuring out who was where is a fascinating, if sad, little piece of genealogical and historical methodology. Amateurs can do it, but it's harder than you think. My parents were avid genealogists and shared that interest with one of my doctors, who was African American and looking for her family. You'll note that on those census forms, owners didn't have to include names of slaves, which makes matters exponentially harder. Two methods emerged from my doctor's work:

1. Check numbers of slaves and then check property records. Some municipalities treated the slaves not only as property, but property that had to be declared for things like taxes. On rare occasions, the owners would note the names of their slaves there.

2. Take a census where no names are included - say, 1850 - and note the ages of the slaves. Then, check the census records for the same towns in the 1870 census for African Americans, note their ages and see if you can infer back to who would have been 20 years younger in 1850. Imperfect in cases where there's more than one 43 year old African American male in town, but tying that person to other relatives can eliminate some conflicts. Also doesn't work if people moved away, but most of the migration out of the deep south took place later.
posted by el_lupino at 7:29 AM on May 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


so sad
posted by francesca too at 7:30 AM on May 28, 2010


So interesting.
Why were the original forms handwritten? Was typesetting too expensive to cover the population?
What would a Korean or Mexican immigrant put down in the days when they didn't care if you were Korean or Mexican? Would they just put down "Chinese" or "White" or "Black" or just write in what they really were? Were people filling out these forms themselves or was it an official census taker?
posted by amethysts at 7:53 AM on May 28, 2010


I have a suspicion that the census back in the day was not multiple forms sent around to everyone and then collected (as they are today) but they were instead housed at a central location (city hall, courthouse, post office, etc) and people would come in and declare their information. Hence the handwritten forms.
posted by msbutah at 7:59 AM on May 28, 2010


I worked for the census until about a month ago and I think it's fucked up that the term "negro" was still in use on the 2010 form.

Even if a few older people are using this antiquated and offensive term it shouldn't be listed on the form. If a person insists on using it they can write it in, but that word needs to be phased out of the lexicon.
posted by cloeburner at 8:26 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't understand the reason for separating the question of Hispanic ancestry, or for keeping Middle-Eastern ethnicities off the form altogether. Can anyone explain why it was done this way?
posted by Navelgazer at 8:31 AM on May 28, 2010


Cloeburner, the NAACP still hasn't changed its name. What's that CP for? Yeah, the term that was in fashion before "Negro" was in fashion. No matter what you pick now, you will be viewed as an ignorant asshat by someone later on. It's always antiquated and offensive ... in retrospect.
posted by adipocere at 8:31 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just don't feel it needs to be in use anymore. I doubt anyone at NAACP uses the term "colored people" and I doubt anyone at the NAACP uses the term "negro". It's not that the term will be viewed as offensive in retrospect, it is that the term is already viewed as offensive, almost universally.

I can tell you, being in Baltimore, the existence of that word on the form made our jobs much more difficult, and ultimately caused us to lose the trust and participation of some citizens.
posted by cloeburner at 8:36 AM on May 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Cloeburner, the NAACP still hasn't changed its name. What's that CP for? Yeah, the term that was in fashion before "Negro" was in fashion. No matter what you pick now, you will be viewed as an ignorant asshat by someone later on. It's always antiquated and offensive ... in retrospect.

Essentially came in here to say this. 100% on the money.
posted by King Bee at 8:38 AM on May 28, 2010


As I understand it, the NAACP hasn't changed its name 1.) because the current name is so well-recognized, and 2.) because it serves as a reminder of the time in which the organization was founded. Sort of a benchmark for progress, if you will.

I'm with closeburner on this one. I was reading the forms going forward chronologically and at some point - 1970, I think - I just started checking them for when the term "negro" would cease to be used. I'm shocked that they still use it today.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:50 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder what the motivation was to briefly catalog the South Asian population, albeit with quite the Victorian phrasing.

There was a period when they were pushing forward anti-miscegenation laws where a lot of SE asians were either approved or not approved to marry whites. Arguments included that Indians were of "Aryan stock" therefore ok to marry, or stuff like, "Filipinos are of Malay origin and not Mongloid" etc.

You end up seeing a bunch of court cases as they have to strike down various subdivisions of ethnicities which the law didn't cover, or appear as racialist "science" changes the categories.
posted by yeloson at 8:56 AM on May 28, 2010


This is really fascinating, and a great post.

I was just in a conversation w/ a cultural historian about how fluid conceptions of race were before the mid-1800s: essentially, before racial identity became as much of a political issue as it did, with the Mexican War, Civil War, and immigration explosion. Note that the important part of the early censii wasn't really race but liberty status: were you free, or not. Even white indentured servants could not be counted in this category. The 1790 census is concerned with free white males and females, especially where they are "heads of households," slaves, and everyone else. Everyone else at that time would of course include indentured servants, Indians, and anyone else nonwhite but free. "Slaves" included slaves of all races, including mixed races. It's not until 1820 that a category besides white that's based on skin color appears: "Colored persons" are counted independently of "slaves."

The codification and gradually increasing encrustation of race as a status is a really interesting aspect of the discussion of race in America. It wasn't always as it is today, and many of our conceptions about essential race identities are really recent. Ideas about "black," "white," "Hispanic [which incidentally isn't even a bloodline, it's a language group]," and the many fine but seemingly somewhat arbitrary fine distinctions among other cultural groups of origin seem to be getting increasingly fine-grained and more accurate, but in reality, it seems to also increasingly be like nailing jello to a wall. In some ways, the very broad and fluid categories of the early American census reveal a very different idea of what were the essential categories of humanity that were deterministic of your options in life - they were less determined by race than social (class) and legal status. (Of course, race determined membership in those classes to a large degree, but not in all cases).
posted by Miko at 9:32 AM on May 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


censii

The correct pedantic plural of "census" is "census," i.e. that is the Latin plural. Otherwise, "censuses" is just fine.
posted by Electrius at 9:51 AM on May 28, 2010


The 1975 edition of my birth certificate has a line for "Color (If other than white) ________." I suspect they don't do it that way any more.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:53 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Even back in 1930, they differentiated among Chinese, Japanese and Korean and in 1890 they differentiated between Chinese and Japanese.
There were some really significant differences in the status of Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Basically, the Japanese government was powerful enough to get some concessions on the treatment of Japanese-Americans. So by 1890, Chinese people were formally excluded from immigrating to the U.S. by the Chinese Exclusion Act, but Japanese people could still immigrate. (That came to an end with the so-called "Gentleman's Agreement" of 1907, which spared Japan the humiliation of having an actual law excluding Japanese immigrants.) I'm pretty sure that California had segregated schools for Chinese-American but not Japanese-American students. There were reasons for the census to differentiate.
posted by craichead at 10:07 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks, Electrius. Consider me informatated.
posted by Miko at 10:21 AM on May 28, 2010


Census Forms from the Future!

2020
6. What is this person's race?
• Tea Party Member
• Tea Party Reformed Member
• Socialist
• "Native" American (English-speaking)
• 9-11 Truther

2040
6. What is this person's race?
• New American Homeland Pioneer
• Visitor
• Cyborg (First-generation)

2080
6. What is this person's race?
• Cyborg
• Zombie
• Alpha-Centaurian
posted by mrbarrett.com at 10:51 AM on May 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


The sub-categories under "Hispanic" I understand - but when (and why) did this start coming first in the race box? Was it because so many people would have otherwise checked off "White"? And why aren't other racial groups offered the same sub-categories - there's no differentiation between African-American or East African, for example. Why not?
posted by caution live frogs at 11:06 AM on May 28, 2010


"Color (If other than white) ________."

Sort of a beige-y peach.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:09 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's a statement about how the categories are determined for "2000 and beyond."
posted by Miko at 11:23 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Color (If other than white) ________."

Sort of a beige-y peach.


Remember, this was a line on a birth certificate, so, if my baby pictures are any indication, that should be, "bright splotchy red, somewhat slimy." YMMV.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:46 AM on May 28, 2010


On a more pertinent note: here's a comparison of some race categorizations from some other census forms
posted by Panjandrum at 11:48 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the place I was born (La Jolla, California) my family was one of the first Hispanic families in the area. The area was mostly German and English immigrants.

Despite being brown-skinned and the son of parents born in Mexico, my birth certificate says very clearly: "Race: White Caucasian" In the hospital, I think they only had two categories. Is this family Black? No? Then they're white.

Nobody spoke Spanish in the hospital, either. They asked my mom what my name was and she said "Ricardo" It was all very quick, she recalls, and they sped off after that.

I am Ricardo. My parents called me Ricardo. All my (white) school mates called me Ricardo. All my family knows me as Ricardo.

Only, much later did they bother to check my birth certificate. The hospital had, for whatever reason, put my name down as "Richard" and my name remains legally as "Richard" to this day. All my school records said Richard. My drivers license, when I got it, said Richard. My passport says Richard.

So, legally I guess, I am a White Caucasian named Richard. All because I was born in a place where the ethnicity was no more complex than black and white and children were all given proper English names.

Funnily enough, I've been called out on this. People who know me as Ricardo have said "Why did you write Richard on that form? Your name is Ricardo. Are you pretending to be white or something..."
posted by vacapinta at 12:01 PM on May 28, 2010 [8 favorites]


I think you have to keep in mind that in order to gather useful information, the question has to be somewhat aligned with the demographics of the census population. A given form might completely omit "Hispanic" or "East Asian" while breaking down white people by their European country of origin not because they hate Mexicans and Indians, but simply because there were statistically insignificant numbers of them in the area at the time.

A census that breaks down the data into "97%, 2%, 1%, 0.1%, 0.1%, 0.05%" isn't going to give much insight into demographic trends, which is what the census is trying to measure.
posted by CaseyB at 12:37 PM on May 28, 2010


Following on what CaseyB said, here's the ethnic breakdowns I see on most forms here in the UK.

Basically: White, Asian, Black, Chinese and other.

So, I am White here too since the number of Latin-Americans is negligible.
posted by vacapinta at 1:23 PM on May 28, 2010


I guess that's part of the question of race: Are Latin-Americans not white? All of them? Some of them? Any of them? Aren't many of them of European (Spanish) origin - a white European origin? One of the difficulties of "Hispanic" as a racial category is that it captures a lot of people whose primary language is Spanish, but whose "racial" origins are as diverse as black, Native, Asian-American, and caucasian. It's this kind of thing where the whole idea of race just begins to fall apart.
posted by Miko at 1:50 PM on May 28, 2010


I guess that's part of the question of race: Are Latin-Americans not white?
I'm confused about this question! Doesn't the census ask both about Hispanic origin and race? They're two separate questions. So the 2010 census does not consider Hispanic/Latino a race and asks people who identify as Hispanic or Latino separately about their race.

My understanding is that the overwhelming majority of Latinos in the U.S. tell the census that they're white.
posted by craichead at 2:35 PM on May 28, 2010


I always figured that Latinos were somewhere in a mix of American (both South and North) Native and South Western European with some African descent in there. I've seen many forms where the race was "unspecified" after the person checked "yes" to being Latino.
posted by Hactar at 3:27 PM on May 28, 2010


I guess that's part of the question of race: Are Latin-Americans not white?

That depends on the person, where they're from, and how they identify. There's a lot of folks who will proudly identify both their nationality and emphatically remind you that they're of european descent...I suspect breaking out Hispanic as a separate category happened when a whole lot of folks checked "White" and not "Latino" or "Latino" and not "Black".

The various ways of self identifying in Latin America is really deep, and there's a ton of specific colonial history stuff worth reading - classifying folks "octoroons" etc. was all part of that.
posted by yeloson at 3:52 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the place I was born (La Jolla, California) my family was one of the first Hispanic families in the area.

First Hispanic faimilies in La Jolla after some gap in time, one would have to guess!
posted by bendybendy at 5:44 PM on May 28, 2010


Right after 9/11, with the rise of anti-Arab prejudice, I predicted that the 2010 census would have an "Arab" category for the first time. I'm surprised that we didn't see it on the census this year. I guess Arabs are still technically white, just as Mexicans/Latin-Americans were before "hispanic" became a politically salient category. Just goes to show how arbitrary and socially determined our racial dividing lines are.
posted by ms.codex at 9:19 PM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Whoa.

I've lived in America all my life...but had never heard of quadroon or octaroon.

Wiki defines quadroon as "...a racial category of hypodescent used to describe a person of mixed-race with one-fourth African and three-fourths Caucasian ancestry."

It also defines octaroon as "... a person with one-eighth African ancestry; that is, someone with family heritage of one biracial grandparent, in other words, one African great-grandparent and seven Caucasian great-grandparents."

Yikes. I wonder how many people registered as octaroons?
posted by hal_c_on at 11:29 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


n the place I was born (La Jolla, California) my family was one of the first Hispanic families in the area.

First Hispanic faimilies in La Jolla after some gap in time, one would have to guess!
posted by bendybendy


Sort of...My great-grandmother was born there when the area was nothing more than farmland. She and her family were farmhands for the ranches there in the 19th century. I don't know earlier than that. So, the roots may be even deeper.

She eventually left for Mexico. Her U.S. citizenship is what allowed my family to "move back" to the U.S. in the 1950's. It is where my U.S. citizenship ultimately derives from.

In any case, La Jolla may not have Spanish origins. And it was always more concerned with keeping Jews out than with keeping out Mexicans.
posted by vacapinta at 2:31 AM on May 29, 2010


My understanding of early censuses is that you didn't fill out a form yourself, the census taker came to the door and asked you questions and wrote down the answers. And if you weren't home or didn't speak English they guessed or asked your neighbors.

I've looked at a lot of census records for doing genealogy research. The information on them is frequently inaccurate or misspelled. One of my ancestors' first names is spelled differently in every census he appears in. Of course his name was Melancthon so it's understandable.
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:57 AM on May 29, 2010


In Europe there is a continuous gradient it seems of degree of pigmentation from Scandinavia to North-Africa. So I think of all these people as 'white', since I'm white. But obviously it makes the whole 'white' moniker moot.
Personally I feel that a lot of the undesirable social mechanisms that we sometimes call 'racism' center around socio-capitalist issues and not around pigmentation.
For instancec I expect that in the Netherlands, where I live, it's much harder to get a 'higher up' job in major corporations if your name is Moroccan or Turkish. No matter how good your qualifications are and how good you'd be at the job.
I think that's because people from Morocco and Turkey are the 'recent arrivals' here and that they are on the bottom rung of society. To give an example: there are places where 10 percent of the population is of Moroccan descent while 31% *) of crime is committed by perpetrators of Moroccan descent. In time of course they will be dispersed over lower- and middle class like everybody else.
But in the mean time I'm sure that a highly capable Dutchman of Moroccan descent has a hard time finding work where his skills are necessary and rewarded.

These classifications try to gather data on these mechanisms of prejudice but obviously are very crude to wrong at best.

*) these are statistics of course with all shortcomings that come with them
posted by joost de vries at 12:08 PM on May 30, 2010


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