The 1850 census marked a watershed in census-taking in several ways…

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.

Melissa Nobles, “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): 1738-1745.

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