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  • La Raza:Mexicans in the United States Census
  • Brian Gratton (bio) and Emily Klancher Merchant (bio)

In 1930, the United States Census for the first and only time included a “Mexican” category on the race variable. This racial classification appeared in other federal records during the 1930s and was not fully rejected until 1939. In the 1940 census, the “Mexican” race category had disappeared, with enumerators instructed that “Mexicans are to be regarded as white unless definitely of Indian or other nonwhite race.”1

This article traces the rise and disappearance of the “Mexican” racial category between 1920 and 1940. Archival records suggest that it emerged from the Census Bureau itself, rather than being imposed by Congress, as other scholars have argued. From the late nineteenth century forward, bureau officials, influenced by hereditarian concepts and fixated on mass immigration, struggled over classifications for new population groups, debating whether their traits were permanent racial markers or impermanent ethnic characteristics. The wave of Mexican immigrants in the 1920s drew their attention. They realized that there were persons of purely European descent in Mexico, but that most Mexicans were mestizos, a mix principally of European and Indian ancestries that did not exist in the Census Bureau’s racial schema. Indeed many Mexicans and Mexican Americans saw themselves as racially distinct, taking significant pride in a mestizo identity. [End Page 537]

That pride was insulted, however, when Mexicans were linked—in official statistics or in the public mind—with a raza de color, especially African Americans. In New Mexico and, more critically, in Texas, Mexican American leaders were also acutely conscious of what a nonwhite classification would cost them in civil and social rights. In Texas, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), challenged the Census Bureau’s new racial classification of Mexican Americans, and it ultimately prevailed. LULAC had allies among politicians increasingly dependent on Mexican American votes, in the State Department and in the Mexican government. Still, by the late 1930s, it had to contend with a new group within the bureau and in the scientific community. Many population and public health experts—including those in Mexican agencies—thought a “Mexican” racial category useful, indeed essential, to vital statistics. Even after their defeat and the removal of the category in the 1940 census, bureau staff sought to identify persons of Mexican background. Ironically, the Hispanic identifier first employed in the census in 1970 was championed less by the bureau than by the Mexican American organizations once resistant to categorization. That identifier continues to evolve and may return in the 2020 census to a variable that ambiguously mixes race and ethnicity.

mass immigration and race classification in the united states census

While Census Bureau officials rarely voiced openly racist views, they were, like most intellectuals in the early twentieth century, influenced by an ascendant belief in inherited racial distinctions that affected character and behavior.2 They were also sensitive to the effects of immigrants from new origins. Francis Amasa Walker, director of the 1870 and 1880 censuses and the intellectual patriarch of the bureau, had, like Henry Cabot Lodge and other restrictionists, begun to voice a neo-Lamarckian view of hereditary inferiority in Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Joseph A. Hill, assistant director for the 1920 and 1930 censuses and a prominent figure in the bureau, epitomized Walker’s legacy. In the first decades of the twentieth century, he and other bureau staff engaged in a debate about the meaning of race that led to the creation of the Mexican race category.3

Joel Perlmann provides close analyses of deliberations within the bureau, a discussion influenced by the Dillingham Commission’s extensive and politicized assessment of immigration.4 The debate did not result in a firm conclusion: among bureau staff, race remained an ambiguous term, at times [End Page 538] a synonym for ethnicity subject to change, especially through assimilation, and at other times implying a more permanent, hereditary, and biological condition. Concern about high levels of immigration in the early twentieth century was manifest in bureau studies and in the private commentary of staff. Aware of the diverse populations within European territorial boundaries, bureau staff resisted expansion of the race variable...


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pp. 537-567
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