A “Mulatto Escape Hatch” in the United States? Examining Evidence of Racial and Social Mobility During the Jim Crow Era

A “Mulatto Escape Hatch” in the United States? Examining Evidence of Racial and Social Mobility During the Jim Crow Era

Published Online: 2013-04-20
DOI: 10.1007/s13524-013-0210-8

Aliya Saperstein, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Stanford University

Aaron Gullickson, Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Oregon

Racial distinctions in the United States have long been characterized as uniquely rigid and governed by strict rules of descent, particularly along the black-white boundary. This is often contrasted with countries, such as Brazil, that recognize “mixed” or intermediate racial categories and allow for more fluidity or ambiguity in racial classification. Recently released longitudinal data from the IPUMS Linked Representative Samples, and the brief inclusion of a “mulatto” category in the U.S. Census, allow us to subject this generally accepted wisdom to empirical test for the 1870–1920 period. We find substantial fluidity in black-mulatto classification between censuses—including notable “downward” racial mobility. Using person fixed-effects models, we also find evidence that among Southern men, the likelihood of being classified as mulatto was related to intercensal changes in occupational status. These findings have implications for studies of race and inequality in the United States, cross-national research on racial classification schemes in the Americas, and for how demographers collect and interpret racial data.


More than 40 years ago. historian Carl Degler outlined a provocative comparison of race relations in Brazil and the United States. The crux of his argument about then-contemporary differences between the two countries rested on the relative status of “mulattos.” Specifically, Degler claimed that the progeny of unions between black and white Brazilians were accorded an intermediate position in the social and racial hierarchy: “The mulatto in Brazil represents an escape hatch for the Negro, so to speak, which is unavailable in the United States” (Degler 1971:107). More controversial, still, is the related and oft-repeated assertion that Afro-Brazilians can avail themselves of this “escape hatch” not only across generations by marrying lighter-skinned spouses but thanks to “the ability of wealth and education to whiten” within a single generation. As Degler put it: “Once ‘whitened’ by money, a ‘Negro’ becomes a ‘mulato’ or ‘pardo’ regardless of his actual color” (Degler 1971:107-08; emphasis in the original).

The ensuing scholarly debate has focused on whether Degler’s notion of an escape hatch was an accurate description of the Brazilian racial hierarchy, with its absence in the United States largely taken for granted. Researchers have come to varying conclusions regarding whether the situation of lighter-skinned or mixed-race Afro-Brazilians represents a meaningful improvement, materially or otherwise, compared with that of their darker-skinned counterparts (Loveman et al. 2012; Sheriff 2001; Idles 2004). Consensus regarding the claim that “money whitens” has also been elusive because of the lack of nationally representative, longitudinal data on race and socioeconomic status (SES) in Brazil (although, sec Schwartzman 2007). In the United States, some “passing“—that is, when people with African ancestry hide their full family history to take advantage of their “white” appearance—was and is publicly acknowledged (e.g.. Gates 1997; Johnson 1925), but it has generally been considered the exception rather than the rule of racial classification and social mobility. Yet, nationally representative, longitudinal data on the racial classification and SES of individuals do exist in the United States that could provide direct, systematic evidence on these issues. Research using the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) shows that social status and racial fluidity are linked in contemporary America: increases in status increase the odds of being classified as white and decrease the odds of being classified as black, and decreases in status decrease the odds of being classified as white and increase the odds of being classified as black (Saperstein and Penner 2012). Thus, regardless of whether the “mulatto escape hatch” is—or ever was—an accurate description of racial stratification in Brazil, it has become pertinent to ask whether increases in social position ever led to increases in racial position among Americans of African ancestry.

Recently released historical linked census samples from the Minnesota Population Center allow us to answer this question. These data provide fresh insight into the era of racial retrenchment following the Civil War and Reconstruction, and bracketing the turn of the twentieth century—a period when “Jim Crow” laws and the “one-drop rule” dictating racial classification were slowly building up steam in the South, even as the U.S. Census was going to great lengths to count the mixed ancestries of Americans. In this context, we find substantial fluidity in mulatto classification between censuses. We also find evidence for a recursive relationship between racial…

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