Checking the Box.

The website has compiled a list of census forms stretching back to the country’s infancy, and it offers a fascinating look at how ideas about racial classification have evolved over time.









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Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Scipio Africanus

    I’ve looked at almost all the available census records for my family I could get my hands on, through The bizarre thing is that since these forms used to be filled out strictly by the (white) census taker, the classification of any one person through time will sometimes swing back and forth. Like the person who’s marked as “Black” when they were 2, then “mulatto” when they were 12, then back to black (hi, Amy) when they were 22, etc.

    It made me realize that the notion of “mulatto” in the US used to be closer to the way it’s currently understood in Latin America – it was more about how you looked (to the person doing the looking) than if one of your actual parents was white. That shifted here sometime in the last 50 years. I suppose once mulatto became an offensive word it got totally subsumed into “black.” It makes me wonder about the real history of the One Drop Rule and the possibility that the current strictness of it might be a really recent phenomenon.

    • J

      “It makes me wonder about the real history of the One Drop Rule and the possibility that the current strictness of it might be a really recent phenomenon.”

      Seems unlikely. If it hadn’t been strictly adhered to it wouldn’t be known as a “rule.” And there’s nothing recent about it, not unless one considers Plessy v. Ferguson “recent.” Anyway, it ended up working to our advantage and is at least partly why Americans of African descent are far better off socially, legally, and economically than their Latin American (or South African) counterparts, no matter what their skin tone. The one-drop rule prevented the rise of an enduring light-skinned mulatto class, helped create a stronger collective identity among black Americans, and discouraged excessive emphasis on skin color within black American culture. One can easily see why some blacks today continue to view it as politically advantageous and try to police “blackness,” a misguided tactic that only serves to further confuse race with culture.

  • aisha

    My great grandfather when from mulatto to black when I looked it up on

  • I wonder how these forms will evolve once we all have the ability to map our individual genetic makeups. May need something like a graph instead of a box to check. Just a thought.

    • huh? there’s nothing ‘genetic’ about race.

      • Interesting assertion GD, but I must ask–why do you think there is no correlation between what characterizes race (melanin content, cranial shape, body type, eye color, hair texture, etc.) and genetics? Aren’t all of those things linked to our DNA? Even if we are talking about ‘culture’ which is nothing but different ways of doing the same thing (maintaining a fusion of like elements) there is a genetic slant to that because cultures evolve in relation to diverse environments. Cultures nearer the equator wear sparse clothing due to warmer climate and as you move north cultures pile on the layers and although this is quite literally superficial it has everything to do with how the cultures evolved and how they are perceived. Of course there are many other elements that factor into defining culture, but each one relates to the environment where they evolved.

        Skin color is a lot like an anteater’s snout which adapted to the environment where it evolved. These adaptations become written in a species genetic code so that the creature can in essence be Xeroxed over and over again. Of course subtle changes are made along the way in relation to the constantly changing environment. Once we learn more about our genetic code we will be able to better dissect our racial makeup. Funny thing is the ability to do this evolves and our DNA evolves to make this a possibility therefore the closer we get the further away we are. Kind of like chasing the rising sun. Some of us went east and even boasted about it and it is no wonder this attitude evolved into a culture that is known to be on the avant-garde of technological advancements. But this ability may be linked to an arbitrarily perceived superiority because the sun doesn’t rise at all. It is our perception that makes this assumption.

        Birds may have evolved from dinosaurs. That means that dinosaurs had the ‘capability’ to fly just as we possess technological capabilities we are unaware of. Our environment dictates when and how these capabilities are switched on and off. We call this period time, but it’s really just the rate of change which is relative.

        Sorry for all that man, but that ‘huh’ got me…and excuse the hyperlinks, I try to corroborate these wild claims when I can.

        • Interesting assertion GD, but I must ask–why do you think there is no correlation between what characterizes race (melanin content, cranial shape, body type, eye color, hair texture, etc.) and genetics? Aren’t all of those things linked to our DNA?

          okay, this is where you’re messing up. all the things that you listed are used to designate racial groups, but they’re completely arbitrary. the people who concocted the pseudoscience around race could have very well picked all the people with size-12 feet or larger and decided that they were part of one large group and called it a race, and done the same with people with sizes 6-10s, and so on. That these random assortments of physical characteristics that some people decided constituted “race” — skin color, hair texture, etc. —- are tied to genes doesn’t mean that there’s a scientific basis for race. (Do the people we think of as black people all have the same skin color or head shapes or hair texture? really?)

          And even the physical criteria you’ve held up have big holes in them as racial identifiers. Shani is lighter than a lot of Desi people. Is she not “black”? Or are they not Desi but actually “black”? If Shani went to some places in, say, South America, she might actually no longer be considered “black.” But her genes haven’t changed; the only thing that’s changed is the social context. There’s actually more genetic diversity in Africa than anywhere other continent, which means that the chances of a random Senegalese person and a random Nigerian person sharing a bunch of the same genes is probably less than the chances of me and a random white American sharing a bunch of the same genes.

          Why is this so? Because race is not a scientific fact, but a social construct.

          Come on, homie. Do better.

  • I write a lot about the illusion of race and the tenuousness of these distinctions like hair texture and skin complexion. Race is a construct, but its characteristics are genetic. Think of genes like Taco Bell ingredients and yourself as one of those “brand new” items they’re hocking every week. You may appear different, but your parts are shared amongst people of all races. Your ‘race’ is defined by the ratio of this-to-that.

    I was not trying to argue the semantics of the word because I know the word is nothing but a box in which to group distinctions. When we start making relationships based on these distinctions we begin to define races. For instance shani is lighter than you, but she is still “brown” and gets lumped into that category. Her hair texture may be similar to another brown person and they may share similar cultural distinctions. Race (as we define it) is really no more than a ratio. More of ‘this’ and we’ll consider you black, more of ‘that’ and we’ll consider you white. The ‘this’ and ‘that’ are genetic. The racial considerations just a collection of diverse ratios.

    That’s truly how arbitrary the “box” that is race is. When I made my initial remarks of I wonder how these (census) forms will evolve once we all have the ability to map our individual genetic makeups I was subtly commenting on the very thing you’re beating me up over. By blowing it up into its particular bits (DNA) we are able to then see how overwhelmingly genetically similar we are hence my graph joke.

    The universe tests the integrity of every box we construct and what we find out time after time is that we’re not good at this boxing stuff up business. For whatever reason it seems to be in our nature to do this. Just like when you referenced ‘pseudoscience.’ That’s a nice, sometimes dismissive box to throw things in. But some things which are considered pseudo end up being real. It just takes time for us to make the relationship between what we once believed to what we now know.

    At any rate, I wasn’t making the claim that race as a line in the sand is scientific, but the hallmarks WE use to define them are…and yes these common traits are shared amongst the so-called ‘races’ and that is what exposes the beautiful lie of race. That’s what was below the surface of my original remark. Also, please note this possibility: if we are so inclined to place everything in boxes then what if we genetically predisposed to do that? Could our need to define races be indeed scientific? We box up everything into groups and we do this by creating relationships…

    “Okay, we have black people…oh there are light skinned black people, oh, whoops, there are also black people with light eyes and what’s this?…different hair textures too. But there is something remarkably similar about all of them…is it their culture? The way they talk? Their mannerisms? What exactly makes them black? Awww…forget about it…just check the damn box.”

    See how fast we move away from the distinction called ‘black’ and also how much we fight to be a part of it as well.

    And what’s up with that last bit, why so contentious? It’s all love man, but hopefully I did a little better this time around. This is far from a fight…and thanks for the thought-out rebuttal.