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Multiracial Identity and the U.S. Census
(Released January 2010)

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  by Tyrone Nagai  


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Multiracial Identity and the U.S. Census: 1790-1890


It is impossible to try to count the number of multiracial people in the 1790 U.S. Census because of the racial categories used: white, slave, and "other." The latter was used for "Free Coloreds," or persons who were free but did not look white. Furthermore, Native Americans were intentionally excluded from the U.S. Census until 1890 (Jobe, 2004). Other types of government surveys were used to count them since tribes were usually accorded the status of quasi-sovereign nations. Census takers used their discretion to determine who fit in the category of "Free Colored," so it is hard to identify the dividing lines between black, white, and "other." A "Free Colored" could be a black person who was not a slave, a free person of mixed black and white ancestry, or a free person of another ethnic or racial origin whom the census taker did not feel was white. Sometimes these "others" included individuals of Portuguese, Turkish, or "Black Dutch" heritage. (Both Portuguese and Turkish people are considered "white" by modern U.S. Census standards.)

U.S. in 1820

Arch Goins and family, Melungeons from Graysville, Tennessee
As early as the 1820 U.S. Census, the "Free Coloreds" category was used to identify a tri-racial population in Appalachia known as Melungeons. It is generally thought that Melungeons are of white, black, and Native American ancestry (Montell, 1972; Lipsey, 1977). Genealogists who traced the family trees of Melungeons found that their racial classification varied from census to census. In other words, a family may have been listed as "white" in 1790, "Free Colored" in 1820, and "Mulatto" in 1850 (Rowe, 2009). Often the appearance of Melungeons, such as the Goins family, also made people speculate they were of Portuguese, Turkish, or Middle Eastern descent (Philipkoski, 2009).

In the 19th century, categories such as mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, hexadecaroon, and quintroon were used to indicate varying levels of mixture between white and black. Mulatto described persons of mixed race, part black and part white. Quadroon meant one-quarter black ancestry. Octoroon meant one-eighth black. Hexadecaroon meant one-sixteenth black. Quintroon was a person who had one parent who was an octoroon and one white parent. These labels indicate that multiracial individuals didn't fit in the black and white dichotomy of racial relations, and they occupied a separate category in the U.S. Census. Often, a social strata known as "Creoles" or gens de couleur libres (free persons of color) formed in places like New Orleans, Louisiana, which was notable for racial mixtures that didn't fit easy classification.

In addition to introducing the Mulatto category in the 1850 U.S. Census, the debate over the three-fifths clause became especially impassioned in the years leading up to the Civil War because the future of slavery was in question. After the Civil War, Southern states saw their representation in Congress increase with the addition of free blacks to the census count. Northern Republicans countered with the Fourteenth Amendment, which reduced a state's representation if it denied the right to vote to all male citizens (Anderson, 2002). The end of slavery rendered the three-fifths clause obsolete, but national politics continued to be shaped by it, and the U.S. Census continued to collect information on race. By 1890, the five racial groups tracked by the U.S. Census were white, black, mulatto, Indian (Native American), and Chinese. Hispanics were not counted as a separate race at this time. They were regarded as white by the U.S. Census.1

Go To Multiracial Identity and the U.S. Census: 1900-2000

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