Social and biological scientists agree that race and ethicity are social constructions, not biological categories.  The U.S. government, nonetheless, has an official position on what categories are “real.”  You can find them on the U.S. Census (source):


Alvaro V. asked us to talk a little bit about the Census.  So, here are some highlights from the hour-long lecture I give in my Race and Ethnicity course.

In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different:

Free white males
Free white females
All other free persons (included Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks)
And slaves

By 1870 slavery is illegal and the government was concerned with keeping track of two new kinds of people: “mulattos” (or people with both black and white ancestors) and Indians:

Indian (Native Americans)

Between 1850 and 1870 6.5 million Europeans had immigrated and 60,000 Chinese.  Chinese and Japanese were added for the 1880 Census.

By 1890, the U.S. government with obsessed with race-mixing.  The race question looked like this:

Black (3/4th or more “black blood”)
Mulatto (3/8th to 5/8th “black blood”)
Quadroons (1/4th “black blood”)
Octoroons (1/8th or any trace of “black blood”)

This year was the only year to include such fine-tuned categories, however, because it turned out it wasn’t easy to figure out how to categorize people.

In the next 50 years, the government added and deleted racial categories. There were 10 in 1930 (including “Mexican” and “Hindu”) and 11 in 1940 (introducing “Hawaiian” and “Part Hawaiian”).  In 1970, they added the “origin of descent” question that we still see today.  So people are first asked whether they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” and then asked to choose a race.

You might immediately think, “But what do these words even mean?”  And you’d be right to ask.  “Spanish” refers to Spain; “Latino” refers to Latin America; and “Hispanic” is a totally made up word that was originally designed to mean “people who speak Spanish.”

Part of the reason we have the “Hispanic” ethnicity question is because Mexican Americans fought for it.  They thought it would be advantageous to be categorized as “white” and, so, they fought for an ethnicity category instead of a race category (see Foley, “Becoming Hispanic”).

Funny story:  The U.S. once included “South American” as a category in the “origin of descent” question.  That year, over a million residents southern U.S. states, like Alabama and Mississippi checked that box.

Three recent changes and proposed changes:

1. 2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race (which, paradoxically, both undermines and reifies racial and ethnic categories).

2. Native Hawaiians have been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the U.S. government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government thus far has said “no.”

3. Whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity is also being discussed. Currently, they are instructed to choose “white” “non-hispanic.”

The changing categories in the U.S. Census show us that racial and ethnic categories are political categories. They are chosen by government officials who are responding not to biological realities, but to immigration, war, prejudice, and social movements.

For more on the social construction of race, start with this simple lesson, then see these great posts: black and white twins! wha’!?, Obama looks just like his white grandfather, judging racial phenotypes in China, and figuring out “Creole”.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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