On National Census Day, MIT Prof Discusses Its Racial and Ethnic History

MIT professor Melissa Nobles discusses history of race and ethnicity on the US Census.

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We know you're extra busy filling out that Census form, but thought you might want to take a few minutes to glance at some Census history courtesy of an interview with Melissa Nobles, associate poli sci professor at MIT, whose written on the subject in her book 'Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics.' Below is an excerpt from the interview

Q.You’ve noted in your book that the initial impetus for census-taking was political, and yet the earliest censuses also included racial categories. Why are race and ethnicity included in the U.S. Census?

A.Census-taking in the U.S. is as old as the Republic. The U.S. Constitution mandates that an “actual enumeration” be conducted every 10 years to allow for representational apportionment. The initial impetus for census taking was political. Yet the earliest censuses also included racial categories. The inclusion of these categories offers important insights into the centrality of racial and ethnic identifications in American political, economic and social life. This centrality continues to this day. So, if the initial reason for census-taking was determining apportionment for representation, why did the earliest censuses include race? Representation depended on civil status — whether a person was free or a slave — and not on racial status. There were free colored persons, after all. Yet racial identification was combined with civil status in the census because race was a salient political and social marker. Censuses from the years 1790 through 1840 asked few questions beyond those related to population. These censuses variously counted free white males and free white females, subdivided into age groups; slaves; and all other free (colored) persons, except Indians not taxed. The 1840 and 1850 censuses were directly intertwined with debates about slavery. Data from the embattled, and largely discredited, 1840 census purportedly disclosed higher rates of insanity among free blacks, thereby proving that freedom drove free black people crazy. The 1850 census first introduced the category “mulatto,” at the behest of a southern physician, in order to gather data about the presumed deleterious effects of “racial mixture.” Post-Civil War censuses, which continued to include the “mulatto” category, reflected the enduring preoccupation with “racial mixing.” The introduction of “Chinese” and “Japanese” in the 1870 and 1890 censuses, respectively, also reflected growing concerns about Japanese and Chinese immigration.

 

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