Flashback Friday.

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


These categories, however real they may seem, are actually the product of a long process. Over time, the official US racial categories have changed in response to politics, economics, conflict, and more. Here’s some highlights.

In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different than it does today:

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 newly 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 mixed-race 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 racial one.

Funny story:  The US 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.

2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race. They considered a couple other changes for that year, but decided against them. Native Hawaiians had been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the US government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government considered it for 2000, but decided “no.” And whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity was also discussed for that year. They decided to continue to instruct such individuals to choose “white.”

The changing categories in the 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.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

In the 6-minute video below, Stanford sociologist Aliya Saperstein discusses her research showing that the perception of other peoples’ race is shaped by what we know about them. She uses data collected through a series of in-person interviews in which interviewers sit down with respondents several times over many years, learn about what’s happened and, among other things, make a judgment call as to their race. You may be surprised how often racial designations. In one of her samples, 20% of respondents were inconsistently identified, meaning that they were given different racial classifications by different interviewers at least once.

Saperstein found that a person judged as white in an early interview was more likely to be marked as black in a later interview if they experienced a life event that is stereotypically associated with blackness, like imprisonment or unemployment.

She and some colleagues also did an experiment, asking subjects to indicate whether people with black, white, and ambiguous faces dressed in a suit or a blue work shirt were white or black. Tracing their mouse paths, it was clear that the same face in a suit was more easily categorized as white than the one in a work shirt.


Race is a social construction, not just in the sense that we made it up, but in that it’s flexible and dependent on status as well as phenotype.

She finishes with the observation that, while phenotype definitely impacts a person’s life chances, we also need to be aware that differences in education, income, and imprisonment reflect not only bias against phenotype, but the fact that success begets whiteness. And vice versa.

Watch the whole thing here:

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

In this 6 minute video, Col. Ty Seidule, head of the department of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, takes on the claim that the Civil War was about something other than slavery. He begins:

Was the American Civil War fought because of slavery. More than 150 years later, this remains a controversial question. Why? Because many people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution. “There has to be another reason,” we are told. Well, there isn’t.

He goes on to use strong logic and documentation — speeches, secession documents, the Emancipation Proclamation, and more — to make a convincing case that the Civil War was about “slavery and just slavery.”  He finishes:

Slavery is the great shame of America’s history. No one denies that. But it’s to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. As a soldier, I am proud that the United States army — my army — defeated the confederates. In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform, almost 200,000 of them former slaves themselves, destroyed chattel slavery; freed four million men, women, and children from human bondage; and saved the United States of America.


Watch it all:

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Trigger warning for racist language and discussions of racial violence.

After the storm had passed, while New Orleans was still in a state of crisis, residents of a predominantly white neighborhood that had escaped flooding, Algiers Point, took it upon themselves to violently patrol their streets.

“It was great!” says one man interviewed below. “It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it!” According to one witness testimony, they were looking for “anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag…” At least 11 black men were shot.

Here is a short interview with two of the men of Algiers Point, from the documentary Welcome to New Orleans:

This next video, sent in by reader Martha O., includes some of the footage above, but focuses much more on the experiences of several African American men who lived in the neighborhood and were shot or threatened by their White neighbors.

The men talk about the panic and terror they felt during these incidents. Toward the end, Donnell Herrington watches footage of the White residents bragging about their exploits. It’s brutal to watch this man listening to the militia members talk about shooting African Americans casually and with obvious enthusiasm and pride.

The video is part of an in-depth story about the Algiers Point shootings featured in The Nation in 2008. And as Martha explained, it’s a harrowing example of how swiftly organized violent racism can emerge when external constraints are even briefly weakened.

Originally posted in 2012. Watch the full documentary here.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

According to data presented by Pew Research Center, 51% of the last 20 years of fires at houses of worship were ruled “intentional.” In contrast, 10% of non-residential fires and 5% of residential fires are believed to be arson.

Overall, all types of fire incidents at churches and other houses of worship have been declining, but the proportion that are ruled intentional has been stable. In 1996, a House Judiciary Committee report found that arson attacks disproportionately targeted black churches in the South.

This is your image of the week:5

Play with the interactive data here.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

“It is fair to say,” writes historian Heather Williams about the Antebellum period in America, “that most white people had been so acculturated to view black people as different from them that they… barely noticed the pain that they experienced.”

She describes, for example, a white woman who, while wrenching enslaved people from their families to found a distant plantation, describes them as “cheerful,” in “high spirits,” and “play[ful] like children.” It simply never occurred to her or many other white people that black people had the same emotions they did, as the reigning belief among whites was that they were incapable of any complex or deep feeling at all.

It must have created such cognitive dissonance, then — such confusion on the part of the white population — when after the end of slavery, black people tried desperately to reunite with their parents, cousins, aunties and uncles, nieces and nephews, spouses, lovers, children, and friends.

And try they did. For decades newly freed black people sought out their loved ones. One strategy was to put ads in the paper. The “Lost Friends” column was one such resource. It ran in the Southwestern Christian Advocate from 1879 until the early 1900s and a collection of those ads — more than 330 from just one year — has been released by the Historic New Orleans Collection. Here is an example:


The ads would have been a serious investment. They cost 50 cents which, at the time, would have been more than a day’s income for most recently freed people.

Williams reports that reunions were rare. She excerpted this success story from the Southwestern in her book, Help Me To Find My People, about enslaved families torn asunder, their desperate search for one another, and the rare stories of reunification.


In the SOUTHWESTERN of March 1st, we published in this column a letter from Charity Thompson, of Hawkins, Texas, making inquiry about her family. She last heard of them in Alabama years ago. The letter, as printed in the paper was read in the First church Houston, and as the reading proceeded a well-known member of the church — Mrs. Dibble — burst into tears and cried out “That is my sister and I have not seen her for thirty three years.” The mother is still living and in a few days the happy family will once more re-united.

I worry that white America still does not see black people as their emotional equals. Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.

How many of us tolerate the systematic deprivation and oppression of black people in America today — a people whose families are being torn asunder by death and imprisonment — by simply failing to notice the depths of their pain?

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

A new tumblr titled Every Word Spoken posted a quote from George Gerbner that goes like this:

Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.

It’s the rallying cry for writer and performer Dylan Marron, who runs the tumblr. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a movie cut down to feature just the lines spoken by non-white people. He’s just getting started, but it looked to me like so far the longest clip is less than 1 minute long, most are around 30 seconds and this includes a few seconds at the beginning of each where they show the title.

In addition to showing us that people of color with speaking roles are almost non-existent — symbolically annihilated — the roles they play tell disturbing stories. Overwhelmingly, in the videos he’s picked so far, they are in service occupations (500 Days of Summer); literally maids (Enough Said); or with stereotypical accents (Wedding Crashers). And, oh hey movie people, making the only person of color with lines a doctor (The Fault in Our Stars; Black Swan) gets you no bonus points in my book. Nice try.

But THESE. These were the best ones…


Into the Woods:

This project is calling out the movie industry in a simple, powerful way. Just the facts, ma’am. Time for change.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

There is a whole social science to the optimal balance of victory and defeat in social movements and social change. Consider two political cartoons by Mike Luckovich. This from June 21:


And this one from June 25:


Did he really just demand the removal of the Confederate flag and then mock people who would celebrate its removal? Is that how much things change in a week? But in periods of social change, moving the goal posts is what it’s all about. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Charleston massacre was a horrific reminder of how it seems some things never change. But they do change. Dylann Roof was caught and may be put to death, legally. And it turned out that, not only had the Confederate flag only been flying at the South Carolina capitol for a few decades, but it actually could be taken down in response to public outrage. And yet, that’s not the end of racism.

Anthea Butler, a religion and Africana studies professor at Penn, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, was on the On Point radio show. She was talking to host Tom Ashbrook, when she got this:

Tom Ashbrook: If you ask me, I understand that feeling and that vivid response. At the same time, I, and maybe you, Anthea Butler, Dr. Butler, don’t want to lose, or not recognize, or lose the progress that has been made. And this is nowhere near paradise…

Anthea Butler: But what kind of progress? What kind of progress? This is what we keep talking about. And I don’t understand, when you say, “We’ve made progress.” How have we made progress when the president of the United States has been constantly questioned because he is partially a Black man? And so you talk progress — and this is the kind of talk we’re going to hear all week long after this.

TA: But he’s president, madam.

AB: He is president.

TA: Well, that’s a pretty big deal…

AB: That is a big deal, but to some people in this country, like Dylann Roof, that is the end of this country. That’s why you had the kind of phrase that he said, that all your politicians, the right Republican politicians have been saying, “Take our country back.” And so, I want to talk about the rhetoric that’s happened…

Ashbrook has a point about progress, of course, but it’s just the wrong time to say that, days after a racist massacre that seems as timeless as a Black-churches burning. At that moment there could be no progress.

For whatever reason, Ashbrook turned to progress on the interpersonal level:

TA: We did see White people in South Carolina, in Charleston, pour into the churches alongside African Americans over this weekend.

AB: Yes we did. But you need to understand the distinction here. I don’t doubt that there are well-meaning, good White people, good White Christians, who are appalled at this. I understand that. But when you have a structural system that continues to do this kind of racial profiling, the kinds of things that are going on with the police in this country, the kinds of issues that we’ve had. The problem becomes this: you can talk about progress all you want, but reality is another thing altogether.

Again, it’s progress, but focusing on it at that moment is basically #AllLivesMatter. President Obama also tried to keep his eyes on the prize, in his appearance on the WTF podcast:

Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say “nigger” in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.

Outrage ensued about his use of “nigger,” but White House Press Secretary Josh “earnest non-racist white guy” Earnest doubled down:

The President’s use of the word and the reason that he used the word could not be more apparent from the context of his discussion on the podcast.  The President made clear that it’s not possible to judge the nation’s progress on race issues based solely on an evaluation of our country’s manners.  The fact is that we’ve made undeniable progress in this country over the last several decades, and as the President himself has often said, anyone who lived in this country through the ‘50s and the ‘60s and the ‘70s and the ‘80s notes the tremendous progress that we’ve made.  That progress is undeniable. But what’s also undeniable is that there is more work that needs to be done, and there’s more that we can do.  And the fact is everyone in this country should take some inspiration from the progress that was made in the previous generation and use that as a motivation and an inspiration to try to make further progress toward a more perfect union.

Now is no time to talk about progress, some say. With Black church members being gunned down and churches burning, and one appalling, outrageous video after another showing the abuse of Black citizens by police, having a Black president is not a victory. So much so that maybe he’s not really Black at all. Frank Roberts writes of Obama’s “Amazing Grace” moment:

With Obama … blackness has been reduced to a theatrical prop; a shuck-and-jive entertainment device that keeps (black) audiences believing that the President “feels their pain” — at precisely the same time that he fails to provide a substantive policy response to black unemployment, over-incarceration, and/or racialized state violence.

The social scientist in me objects, because the rate of progress is not determined by the victory or tragedy of the moment, or by the blackness of a man. And Obama probably has done more than any other president (at least recently) to address Black unemployment, incarceration, and racialized state violence. That’s not a moral or political statement — and it doesn’t imply “enough” — it’s an empirical one.

Movements use good news for legitimacy and bad news for urgency.  When something goes well, they need to claim credit and also make sure their supporters know there is more work to be done. When something awful happens they place the troubles in the context of a narrative of struggle, but they don’t want to appear powerless because that saps support and undermines morale.

An extended version of this post is at Family Inequality.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.