Explore Changing Definitions

Race hasn't always been defined the same way. Ideas have changed over time, and racial classification reflects shifting political priorities

1680 "white" appears in colonial laws 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.
1790 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.
1825 "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.
1899 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.
1922 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.
1924 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.
1930 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."
1934 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.
1977 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.
2000 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.


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