Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 327-328
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Shades of Citizenship:
Race and the Census in Modern Politics
Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics. By Melissa Nobles (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000) 248pp. $49.50 cloth $16.95 paper
It has become a well-worn notion of modern scholarship to discuss the social construction of race. From sophisticated cultural analysis to sports commentary about why we consider Tiger Woods an African-American even though his mother is Asian, Americans are becoming increasingly adept at identifying how racial categories are created in the eye of the beholder. Nobles has set about the task of demonstrating just how long this social construction has been underway and, more important, how it has been institutionalized into that seemingly objective government enumeration, the census.
Nobles compares the racial categories in the censuses of two modern multiracial societies, the United States and Brazil. In each country she finds categories that shift radically over the years and often betray racist underpinnings. Her systematic study is as sharp an indictment of prejudicial attitudes as any of the more dramatic histories of southern segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, or slavery itself.
Merely reading through the categories of racial choice in the U.S. censuses offers a shorthand history of race thinking in America. In 1790, the categories were Free White Males, Free White Females, All Other Free Persons, and Slaves. After the Civil War, the categories of choice were White, Black, Mulatto, Chinese, and Indian. The mulatto designation and its recognition of multiracialism has a contemporary ring, as Nobles states in her last chapter, but the motivation behind the category is hardly modern. She details the ideological background of this development. Census Superintendent Joseph Kennedy argued in 1864, for example, that a "corruption of morals progresses with greater admixture of races," thus explaining "the slow progress of the free colored population." Blacks would become extinct, if they "[became[ diffused among the dominant race" (46). Thus, when other census data would be correlated with those in the mulatto category, this decline could be "scientifically" demonstrated, and arguments for race segregation would prevail. These notions reached their height (of absurdity) in the 1890 census, when enumerators tried to create distinctions among Mulatto, Quadroon, and Octoroon, the better to understand the implications of race mixing. These investigations proved fruitless, as well as ultimately ludicrous. [End Page 327]
With the institutionalization of segregation, especially after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the ideological background of the census shifted. The "one drop rule" became the new norm--one drop of non-white blood assigned an individual to a non-white category. This re-statement of racial hierarchy would help clarify such matters as which school to attend or which seat to take on a bus. One surprising category emerged in the 1930 census, the only time before or since that "Mexican" became a distinct category. This category, Nobles tells us, had much to do with the influx of Mexican immigrants to the Southwest in the 1920s, complicating the previously held notion that Mexicans were white. With help from the Mexican government, Mexican Americans lobbied against, and eventually helped to delete, this categorization, especially since it was accompanied by the forced repatriation of nearly 400,000 Mexicans in the 1930s. Not until 1980 was "Hispanic origins" added to the census.
The racial categories of the U.S. census were based on the perpetuation of a divided society; the ideological context of the Brazilian census moved in the opposite direction. Despite its apparent multiracial society, the mentality that predominated in Brazil tended toward racial harmony, in part because the population was "whitening." Progress and modernization were equated with whiteness. Thus, despite conditions that suggested the contrary, Brazil celebrated its racial democracy and intended its census as a demonstration of its furtherance.
Modern notions of multiculturalism entered the census discussion in both countries. In the United States, changing designations sought accurately to reflect social reality, as well as to comply with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s...