The U. S. Census & the dilemmas of racial categories

by kathleenljackson

I recognise this as a dreadfully shameful thing to admit but I am a bit obsessed with the census at the moment. I have been looking at the use of racial categories in the U. S. census; it is fascinating to see the correlation between the census and its historical context.

In 1850, prior to the emancipation of the slaves, the ‘mulatto’ was an acceptable racial category, however, by the 1890 census scientific racism had peaked in popularity and blood quantum briefly entered the census. In 1890 one could identify (note: this means the census taker could assess the racial identity based on physical appearance of the individual and their parents etc) as white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, chinese, japanese or indian.

Despite this newfound love of blood quantums within ten years even the term ‘mulatto’ was removed from the census. They fluffed about with these terms until the 1930s when it was agreed; you could be black or you could be white. A single drop of black blood, obviously, made you black though. This monoracial theme continued until 2000 when it was finally acceptable to identity as having one/ two or more races.

This has led me to the conclusion, which seems so prevalent in today’ society, that ambiguity is scary and things hard to define are typicall left undefined (or incorrectly defined by too narrow terms). What do you think, dear reader?