History Counts: A Comparative Analysis of Racial/Color Categorization in US and Brazilian Censuses

History Counts: A Comparative Analysis of Racial/Color Categorization in US and Brazilian Censuses

American Journal of Public Health
Volume 90, Number 11 (November 2000)
pages 1738-1745

Melissa Nobles, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Categories of race (ethnicity, color, or both) have appeared and continue to appear in the demographic censuses of numerous countries, including the United States and Brazil. Until recently, such categorization had largely escaped critical scrutiny, being viewed and treated as a technical procedure requiring little conceptual clarity or historical explanation. Recent political developments and methodological changes, in US censuses especially, have engendered a critical reexamination of both the comparative and the historical dimensions of categorization. The author presents a comparative analysis of the histories of racial/color categorization in American and Brazilian censuses and shows that racial (and color) categories have appeared in these censuses because of shifting ideas about race and the enduring power of these ideas as organizers of political, economic, and social life in both countries. These categories have not appeared simply as demographic markers. The author demonstrates that censuses are instruments at a state’s disposal and are not simply detached registers of population and performance.

…1850–1920 Censuses

The 1850 census marked a watershed in census-taking in several ways. For our purposes, a large part of its significance rests in the introduction of the “mulatto” category and the reasons for its introduction. This category was added not because of demographic shifts, but because of the lobbying efforts of race scientists and the willingness of certain senators to do their bidding. More generally, the mulatto category signaled the ascendance of scientific authority within racial discourse. By the 1850s, polygenist thought was winning a battle that it had lost in Europe. The “American school of ethnology” distinguished itself from prevailing European racial thought through its insistence that human races were distinct and unequal species. That polygenism endured at all was a victory, since the European theorists to abandon it. Moreover, there was considerable resistance to it in the United States. Although most American monogenists were not racial egalitarians, they were initially unwilling to accept claims of separate origins, permanent racial differences, and the infertility of racial mixture. Polygenists deliberately sought hard statistical data to prove that mulattoes, as hybrids of different racial species, were less fertile than their pure-race parents and lived shorter lives.

Racial theorist, medical doctor, scientist, and slaveholder Josiah Nott lobbied certain senators for the inclusion in the census of several inquiries designed to prove his theory of mulatto hybridity and separate origins. In the end, the senators voted to include only the category “mulatto,” although they hotly debated the inclusion of another inquiry—“[d]egree of removal from pure white and black races”—as well. Instructions to enumerators for the slave population read, “Under heading 5 entitled ‘Color,’ insert in all cases, when the slave is black, the letter B; when he or she is a mulatto, insert M. The color of all slaves should be noted.” For the free population, enumerators were instructed as follows: “in all cases where the person is black, insert the letter B; if mulatto, insert M. It is very desirable that these particulars be carefully regarded.”

The 1850 census introduced a pattern, especially in regard to the mulatto category, that lasted until 1930: the census was deliberately used to advance race science. Such science was fundamental to, though not the only basis of, racial discourse—that is, the discourse that explained what race was. Far from merely counting race, the census was helping to create race by assisting scientists in their endeavors. Although scientific ideas about race changed over those 80 years, the role of the census in advancing such thought did not.

The abolition of slavery and the reconstitution of White racial domination in the South were accompanied by an enduring interest in race. Predictably, the ideas that race scientists and proslaveryadvocates had marshaled to defend slavery were used to oppose the recognition of Black political rights. Blacks were naturally inferior to Whites, whether as slaves or as free people, and should therefore be disqualified from full participation in American economic, political, and social life. Although scientists, along with nearly all Whites, were convinced of the inequality of races, they continued in their basic task of investigating racial origins. Darwinism presented a challenge to the still dominant polygenism, but the mulatto category retained its significance within polygenist theories. Data were needed to prove that mulattoes lived shorter lives, thus proving that Blacks and Whites were different racial species…

…The mulatto category remained on the 1910 and 1920 censuses for the same reason that it had been introduced in 1850: to build racial theories. (Census officials removed the category from the 1900 census because they were dissatisfied with the quality of 1890 mulatto, octoroon, and quadroon data.) The basic idea that distinct races existed and were enduringly unequal remained firmly in place. What happens when superior and inferior races mate? Social and natural scientists still wanted to know. But the advisory committee to the Census Bureau decided in 1928 to terminate use of the mulatto category on censuses.

The stated reasons for removal rested on accuracy. Had the advisory committee possessed confidence in the data’s accuracy or the Census Bureau’s ability to secure accuracy, “mulatto” might well have remained on the census. The committee did not refer to the evident inability of the mulatto category to settle the central, if shifting, questions of race science: first,whether “mulatto-ness” proved that Whites and Blacks were different species of humans, and then, whether mulattoes were weaker than members of the so-called pure races. The exit of the mulatto category from the census was markedly understated, especially whencompared with its entrance in 1850 and its enduring significance on 19th-century censuses.

Beginning with the 1890 census, all Native Americans,whether taxed or not,were counted on general population schedules. Much as racial theorists believed that enumerating mulattoes would prove their frailty, they thought that Native Americans were a defeated and vanishing race. Given the weight of these expectations in the late 19th century, it is not surprising that census methods and data reflected them. As the historian Brian Dippieobserved, “the expansion and shrinkage of Indian population estimates correlate with changing attitudes about the Native American’s rights and prospects.” The idea of the vanishing Indian was so pervasive that the censuses of 1910 and 1930 applied a broad definition of “Indian” because officials believed that each of these censuses would be the last chance for an accurate count.

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