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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop 6 - The Census: Who We Think We Arehomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 6:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
The Census and American Identity

Page 1234


So this rule was promoted by slaveholders as a way of enlarging the slave population with children of the slave owners, because anyone who had any perceptible trace of black blood was indeed black, so the holdings of the slave owner would be increased. And it was established ultimately as the law of the land. The "one-drop rule" is one that both carries in one sense a notion of a biological essence to race—that it's about blood—but actually is not concurrent with scientific ideas about human variation. But it remains the way in which that census category was defined.

Europeans are also classified in the census. The category of white, as I said, initially referred to people descended from European colonists who were at the edge of immigration. Other ancestries had to be classified, but when they came to this country, national origin took over various other categories of identity in the United States context. So, in fact, someone who had never referred to himself as a Russian before became a Russian for the purpose of the United States census, and then what we see over time, that becomes the way in which people identify themselves.

So the categories we used help people to identify themselves in particular ways over alternate designations that were, in fact, possible. And as the 20th century continued, we see that these new Russians or Italians were ultimately classified as white. And the fact that certain groups were moved into the category of white and others were not shows us that the designation of white, just as the destination of black or Negro, was not a natural one, but one created to serve certain purposes at specific historical moments.

The other category that is important to understand in that regard is also the Hispanic category, which was one that first appears in the U.S. census in the 1960s. And this was a very complicated category as well, because how do you determine what people of Hispanic origin are? Is it a race? Is it an ethnic group? And how do you determine that? By what measures do you use to do that? And also, the ways in which the government made decisions about these didn't necessarily correlate with how people thought of themselves, so some of the historical evidence shows that before the Hispanic category appeared on the census, there were very few people in the United States who called themselves Hispanics, but that once it appears on the census, it then appears on mortgage applications; it then appears on forms for federal aid for housing; it appears on forms for financial aid to go to school. And slowly, over time, the people who were identified with it began to identify themselves with this category. But there's a history to how that category emerged and why it was chosen, both as a way to accommodate some of the political interests of Mexican Americans, of other Americans living in the Southwest border who were of mixed ancestry.

In 1977, the Office of Management and Budget adopted Statistical Directive 15, which is the new guidelines for classifying the U.S. population, and it has four racial groups: American Indian or Alaska native, Asian or Pacific Islander, black, and white. And ethnicity is broken down into Hispanic Origin and Not of Hispanic Origin.

I wanted to stop there because what I want us to do is to take a few minutes in the activity to look at some of the census forms and the categories that we have and walk through them. And I would like people to look at all the forms—we begin with 1830, and I think we end in 1990—particularly the categories of race and ethnicity, to ask you to determine these categories for yourself. What would you check on each of these censuses?

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