Explore Changing Definitions
Race hasn't always been defined the same way. Ideas have changed
over time, and racial classification reflects shifting political
||"white" appears in colonial
||Early colonial laws refer to "Christians"
or "Englishmen" rather than "whites," reflecting the greater
importance of religious or national differences. Around the
time of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, new laws begin to appear,
separating Black slaves from European indentured servants.
Slavery becomes permanent and heritable for "Negroes," and
Black people are punished more harshly for crimes. Poor whites
are given new rights and opportunities, including as overseers
to police slaves. As the importance of slavery grows, "white"
is used almost exclusively, not only in law but other social
arenas, and slavery becomes associated increasingly with Blackness.
||Race categories on first census
||The U.S. Constitution mandates that "an actual
enumeration" be conducted every 10 years. From the beginning,
race categories are included, although in 1790, who is Black
or white is not as important as who is free or enslaved. The
question of how to count slaves sparks an intense debate in
Congress, leading to the infamous 3/5ths compromise to determine
taxation and representation. At this time, Enlightenment thinkers
have a view of common humanity. Many regard Africans as different
from and inferior to the English, but the difference is seen
as a product of environment rather than natural or inevitable.
||"Blood" degree measures who is Indian
||An early treaty with the Osage tribe introduces
land allotment and federal Indian policy based on "blood"
degree. These ideas are broadly applied during the 19thcentury,
most notably by the Dawes Commission in its 1887 wholesale
redistribution of Indian lands. Historically, membership in
Indian tribes was based on acceptance of tribal language,
customs, and authority, not "blood." Escaped slaves, whites
and other Indians were able to join and be accepted as full
members. Although land allotment policies end in the 1930s,
the government continues to base eligibility for programs
on blood quantum, leading most tribes to adopt blood degree
requirements for membership by the late 20thcentury.
||Europeans seen as not quite white
||After 1889, immigration to the U.S. from southern
and eastern Europe swells dramatically. Many of the new arrivals
are "ethnics" employed in undesirable low-wage jobs and living
in the urban ghetto. Like the African, Mexican and Chinese
Americans also performing unskilled, industrial labor, these
immigrants are seen as "not quite white." Reflecting this
view, anthropologist William V. Ripley publishes The Races
of Europe, dividing whites into a distinct hierarchy of subraces
and sub-subraces. Yet even the degraded Hebrew, Celt and Italian
are still legally "white" - they are not denied citizenship
or prevented from full participation in American society.
They naturalize, organize, vote, and eventually amalgamate
into whiteness after WWII as they move into government-subsidized
white suburbs and up the economic ladder.
||Courts decide who is white
||The 1790 Naturalization Act restricts naturalized
American citizenship to whites. In the early 20thcentury,
many new arrivals petition the courts to be legally designated
white in order to gain citizenship. Armenians, known as "Asiatic
Turks," succeed with the help of anthropologist Franz Boas,
who testifies as an expert scientific witness. Others are
not so fortunate. In 1922, the Supreme Court concludes that
Japanese are not legally white because science classifies
them as Mongoloid rather than Caucasian. Less than a year
later, the court contradicts itself by concluding that Asian
Indians are not legally white, even though science classifies
them as Caucasian, instead declaring that whiteness should
be based on "the common understanding of the white man." Racial
restrictions on naturalization are not removed until the 1954
McCarran-Walter act is passed.
||Changing definitions of who is Black
||In 1705 Virginia defines any "child, grandchild,
or great grandchild of a Negro" as a mulatto. In 1866, the
state decrees that "every person having one-fourth or more
Negro blood shall be deemed a colored person." In 1910, the
percentage is changed to 1/16th. Finally in 1924, the Virginia
Racial Purity Act defines Black persons as having any trace
of African ancestry - the infamous "one-drop" rule. Practically
speaking, most people cannot prove their ancestry and the
rule is applied inconsistently. Other states also define Blackness
differently. As historian James Horton notes, one could cross
a state line and literally, legally change race.
||Mexicans added to census
||Mexicans, like other minority groups, are defined
differently at different times. In the 19th century, they
are classified as white and allowed to naturalize, based upon
the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In 1930, nativists lobby
for them to be classified separately on the census, to limit
their immigration and reinforce their distinctness from whites.
During World War II, as demand for Mexican labor grows, Mexicans
are again classified as whites. In the 1970s, they are reclassified
as "Hispanics." As census historian Hyman Alterman notes,
the definition often depended on political climate: "It was
not an accident that in the census of 1930, persons of Mexican
birth or ancestry were classified as 'nonwhite'. This was
a policy decision, not a mistake."
||Indians base membership on "blood"
||The 1934 Indian Reorganization (Wheeler-Howard)
Act ends land allotment and encourages tribal self-government,
but it also helps entrench race as the basis for tribal membership.
Despite their sovereign power and historic openness to others,
tribes wanting federal recognition are forced to adopt constitutions
following government guidelines, including membership based
upon "blood" degree. A 1991 Bureau of Indian Affairs inventory
of 155 federally recognized tribes in 48 states shows that
4 out of 5 condition membership on proof of blood, ranging
in amount from 1/2 to 1/64th. In recent years, more tribes
are basing their membership on lineal descent (ancestry without
regard to percentage) rather than blood degree, but some have
lost federal recognition.
||Government defines race and ethnic categories
||In response to the 1974 Equal Educational Opportunity
Act, the federal Office of Management and Budget issues Directive
15, creating a standard government definition of racial and
ethnic categories for the first time. The categories are meant
to aid government agencies, but they are arbitrary, inconsistent,
and they reveal assumptions about how different groups are
defined.. For example, "Black" is defined as a "racial group"
but "white" is not. "Hispanic" reflects a pattern of colonization
and excludes non-Spanish parts of Central and South America;
while "American Indian or Alaskan Native" requires "cultural
identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition"
- a condition of no other category. The categories are amended
in 1996, and a new one, "Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific
Islander," is added.
||Census allows more than one race
||To reflect the growing diversity of the U.S.
populace, the 2000 Census adds new race subcategories and
allows respondents to check more than one race. Their decision
is controversial. "Multi-racial" advocates want to be distinct
from traditional constituencies, while civil rights groups
fear a loss of support for anti-discrimination programs tied
to census numbers. The public's increased interest reflects
the census' changing role since the civil rights movement
- from one of exclusion to inclusion. Although the debate
is far from over, it shows how the construction of race is
still important to politics and social policy.