Because race is a social construction, racial categories change depending on which country you are in. Using our sociological imagination, we will see that not only does change change upon where you are, but it also changes over time. In the US, depending on when you are living, your race might be different. Remember that Omi and Winant made the case that race is a product of social, political and cultural history. That is true within the history of the US too. During different time periods within the history of the US, social, political and cultural dynamics influenced race. The sections below will show how different social institutions in the US changed racial categorizations during various time periods.
3. How many different races would you have been in the censuses above?
4. As the census changed can you identify one change and what the social, political or cultural changes were that resulted in a changing census? (You can try to examine the graphic or use the Society Pages link above for a guided explanation)
One census example worth examining is “Mexican” which was only used in 1930 and then discontinued. Code Switch from NPR has a terrific history of the terms in Gene Demby’s 2014 episode here. In 1970 it was re-added as an ethnic group. Both introductions were the result of an economy at the time.
Dowling’s research challenges common assumptions about what informs racial labeling for this population. Her interviews demonstrate that for Mexican Americans, racial ideology is key to how they assert their identities as either in or outside the bounds of whiteness. Emphasizing the link between racial ideology and racial identification, Dowling offers an insightful narrative that highlights the complex and highly contingent nature of racial identity.
The 1965 immigration law was another institution that played a pivotal role in shaping the US and making it the multi-cultural nation that it has become. This 2019 episode of NPR’s Fresh Air highlights Tom Gjelten’s 2016 book, A Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story.
The 1965 law opened the US to countries all over the world, and it also created a demand for cheap labor that would lead to the illegal immigration crisis from Central America.
The Supreme Court and the Institutionalization of Race
The Census Bureau is not the only U.S. institution that subjectively affected racial categorization over the years. Because of the subjective nature of race in general and the census in particular, a number of Supreme Court Cases were forced to determine racial classification and policy.
United States V. Thind
5. Decide how you would rule:
____ Singh is not white and therefore does not deserve citizenship.
The Court determined that Thind was not white or Caucasoid, even though they did not fit into the other categories of race at the time (Mongoloid / Asian, Negroid / Black, American Indian). Instead, the court ruled that because now people would say that he is not white, then he is not white. The court also ruled that this ruling applied to all Hindus – even though Thind was not even Hindu! He was Sikh. This was just one way of many that the legal system that shaped race throughout US history. For more information on Thind, checkout the Scene on Radio podcast. It has a whole season on race and a whole episode about Thind (embedded below) as told through his son, who, surprisingly, had no idea about the case and everything that his dad went through!
I really want to emphasize the significance of Thind here. The Thind case represents a simple idea that complicates race relations in the US in so many ways:
For many Americans, being “American” means being White.
In Thind’s case it is quite literally being considered not a citizen; After the Thind ruling one-third of all Americans with Indian descent leave the country!
- Dred Scott v. Sandford 1857 (Black Americans could never be citizens of the United States.)
- Chae Chan Ping v. United States 1889 (Limited rights for Americans who had Chinese ancestry.)
- Pace v. Alabama 1883 (miscegenation law allowed criminalizing interracial marriage – not overturned until 1967!)
- Ozawa v. US 1922 (Japanese are not white.)
- Thind v. US 1923 (If you don’t seem white, you are not and Hindus are not white.)
- Lum v. Rice 1927 (Citizens who are Chinese don’t have the right to attend white schools.)
- Korematsu v. US 1944 (Americans can be held in prison or concentration camps because of their ethnicity and without due process.)
The changing nature of whiteness in the US
From Harper’s Illustration, (paraphrased)
They are untucated, and as a consequence, they are jobless, poor, and they don’t save what little money they have. They drink alcohol, and act like barbarians… Of course they will violate our laws, they are like wild bisons leaping over the fences which easily restrain the civilized domestic cattle, and they will commit great crimes of violence, even murder, which certainly have increased lately.
6. Who do you think the magazine is talking about? Why?
This caption and illustration show the subjectivity of the race in the United States. The writer was referring to the Irish who were emigrating in large numbers in the 1840s and 50s. The Irish were not considered white. Not only does this not make sense physically / biologically, but the caption reveals how subjective and social race was. They were looked down on because of the jobs they did (dock lab), because of their religion (Catholic), because of their culture (alcohol use) and their social class (poor). This subjectivity is just one example throughout the history of the United States. Over the years, Jews, Italians, Greeks and other Southern Europeans faced discrimination because they were considered less desirable than Northern Europeans, but all of these people are considered “white” by today’s standards.
Changing Definitions of Whiteness
Here are some sociology readings about how different groups have changed over time:
All of these are examples of how race has changed over the years in America. Who is considered white changes because there is no empirical or objective way to define race. Race doesn’t exist in any biological or empirical sense, it only exists as a social construction.
7. Is it surprising that the idea of who is white has changed so much over the years? Which group is now surprising to hear about?
For more on how race has changed, see Nell Irvin Painter’s book called, The History of White People.
Here is an interview on NPR with Painter.
Here is a book review from NY Times.Are Asian Americans Becoming White
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