How Puerto Rico Became White: Boundary Dynamics and Intercensus Racial Reclassification

How Puerto Rico Became White: Boundary Dynamics and Intercensus Racial Reclassification

American Sociological Review
Volume 72, Number 6 (December 2007)
pages 915-939
DOI: 10.1177/000312240707200604

Mara Loveman, Professor of Sociology
University of California, Berkeley

Jeronimo O. Muniz
Department of Sociology
University of Wisconsin, Madison

According to official census results, the Puerto Rican population became significantly whiter in the first half of the twentieth century. Social scientists have long speculated about the source of this trend, but until now, available data did not permit competing hypotheses of Puerto Rico’s whitening to be evaluated empirically. This article revisits the question of how Puerto Rico whitened using newly available Public Use Micro-Samples from the 1910 and 1920 U.S. Censuses of Puerto Rico. Demographic analysis reveals that racial reclassification between censuses generated a “surplus” of nearly 100,000 whites in the 1920 enumerated population. Previous studies of intercensus change in the racial composition of populations have demonstrated that racial reclassification occurs. Going beyond previous studies, we investigate empirically the underlying social mechanisms that fueled change in categorical membership. Reclassification between censuses may reflect the movement of individuals across racial boundaries (boundary crossing), the movement of racial boundaries across individuals (boundary shifting), or both of these boundary dynamics simultaneously. Operationalization of these conceptually distinct boundary dynamics shows that Puerto Rico whitened in the second decade of the twentieth century primarily through boundary shifting-an expansion of the social definition of whiteness itself. Our analysis helps advance general sociological understanding of how symbolic boundaries change.

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