I have long held a sneaking suspicion that by honestly exploring the mulatto experience we will encourage important social change. I am thrilled to hear that way back when, others had the same idea. But then slavery ended, and the “powers that be” really needed to maintain the color-coded class system that allowed them such control and wealth, and so did our chances (slim though they were) of being counted for what we really are. This was not a chance, in my opinion, to distance ourselves from blackness, but to disprove the theory that white and black were different species. I do think we’ve moved beyond that antiquated notion, but I’m not so sure there aren’t a great number of people who consciously or unconsciously believe that black and white occupy space at opposite ends of the spectrum of one species. I think this article says so much and says it very well.
Census reveals history of U.S. racial identity
by Sally Lehrman
Whether or not they can lay claim to a special category, the “Confederate Southern Americans” who want to write themselves into the U.S. census section denoting “race” have a point.
Race, as the social scientists like to say, is “socially constructed.” Since the founding of this country, we have been making it up as we go. Race is a modern idea, historians and anthropologists tell us, a means to categorize and organize ourselves that we constantly adjust.
The U.S. census serves as an archive of this change, a record of classifications that have been “contradictory and confused from the very outset,” says Margo Anderson, a University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, urban studies historian and expert on U.S. census history. Begun in 1790 as a solution to the problem of how to allocate seats in Congress, the survey didn’t mention “race” originally, but the idea as we understand it today was central. How should slaves be counted? Were they entirely property or were they people? What to do with “civilized” Indians?
Later Congress debated whether to include the word “mulatto,” Anderson says, and finally agreed – but for opposite reasons. Blacks and whites were different species, some argued, so their “unnatural” offspring should be counted. Others felt that documenting the children of black-white relationships would encourage an important social advance.
“Mexicans” were counted as a race in the 1930 questionnaire, but the Mexican government protested and the category disappeared. “Hindu” lasted for three decades. Koreans were written in, pulled out, and added back again.
All along, the “race” category of the census has been a powerful social and political tool wielded both to discriminate and to guard against discrimination. At first, survey categories reflected ideas about the divide between black and white, which immigrants were eligible for citizenship, and how to sort categories of “Indians.” Later, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, its groupings also made it possible to measure compliance with equal treatment under the law.
The census reveals the process of race, the categories by which Americans construct difference and with difference, special privileges for some. It measures who and what matters, how resources have been allocated, and reflects the political, economic and social interests that prop up race. Race is defined and contested constantly, shaped in both personal and social realms all at once, according to Michael Omi and Howard Winant, sociologists who developed the central paradigm for studying contemporary race in American society.
Today, for instance, many Latinos refuse to conform to the forms of race described in the census. “Hispanic” is separated out as an “ethnicity” on the survey, so members of this group are expected to choose a race, too. About 40 percent in both 1980 and 2000 selected “some other race,” often writing in an identity such as “Venezuelan” instead.
But that’s not to say race is an illusion, a set of categories we can write in or wipe away like chalk on a blackboard. Race arose in America as a means to support and rationalize the slave economy. By the end of the 17th century, writes social anthropologist Audrey Smedley, wealthy planters had carefully woven it into a “rigid and exclusionist” system, a legal and institutional hierarchy built upon skin color.
We continue to shape race through both our institutions and everyday actions, and it powerfully shapes us. Public health statistics reveal the damage. On average, white people can expect to live about five years longer than African Americans. Even middle-class black people are more likely than any other group to live with a chronic health condition or disability. American Indians and Latinos suffer disproportionately from diabetes, Asian Americans bear a heavier burden of tuberculosis and hepatitis B, and the list goes on. While genetic scientists hunt for possible differences in susceptibility, public health experts shine their light on society.
Forces like everyday prejudice, segregated neighborhoods and unequal schools wear out hearts and immune systems, clog up air passages and make us fat. San Francisco is among the cities, in fact, studying the ways in which we build disparate health opportunity right into our streets. Who enjoys neighborhoods with clean, well-lighted sidewalks? Who has to battle congested traffic and diesel fumes to get to work or school? Who can walk to a farmers’ market on Saturday, and who sees only fast-food outlets block after block?
When confronted with race categories neatly printed out on a form, it’s tempting to see them as natural divisions. The inequities that go along with them, it seems to follow, are natural, too. With their proposition to claim themselves as a race, the Southern Confederates challenge all of us to contemplate what we mean by that term and what role we play in making its harms and hierarchies real. And when we learn about racial differences in health, in economic success, in education or any other measure, we should remember the confederates. Race matters, and we are the hands that shape it.