Race & National Identity

Learning Goal: I’m working on a history writing question and need an explanation and answer to help me learn.

Prompt: Explain how race has been related to national identity AT DIFFERENT PERIODS IN US HISTORY.

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based on ch. 3, 7, 10, 1, 5


n May 2010, a month after the twenty-third decennial census
of the United States went into the field, Saturday Night Live
produced a comedy skit about the difficulties a census-taker faced as she
knocked on the door of apartment 15A in a large building, likely in New
York City. Tina Fey was the census-taker, and Betty White the resident Fey
met. These two great comedians produced a hilarious two and a half minutes of banter at the door, with Fey, wearing glasses and sporting pen and
clipboard, trying diligently to elicit responses from a chipper but confused
White in her bathrobe (and without her glasses). White initially closed the
door on Fey, taking her for a solicitor. When asked her name, White told Fey
it was Blaarfengar Blaarfengar. Fey asked her to spell it, and White responded, L-E-E S-M-I-T-H. When Fey asked White to identify her racial
origin, White was confused. Fey offered, “Let me clarify. Which of the following describes you? White, Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander . . . .” White
interrupted, “Oh, Pacific Islander, let’s try that . . . and don’t skimp on the
rum.” And so it went, as Fey tried to find out how many people lived in the
apartment, and White chattered on about how her name was changed to
Blaarfengar, her recent trip to Ellis Island, and her stripper name. Fey asked
if there were other people living in the apartment, and White responded,
“There’s Fluffy, Princess, Tigger, Socks . . . .” Fey asked for clarification,
“Oh . . . and these are people we’re talking about here and not cats, right?”
White assured Fey, “There’s really no way of knowing. Sometimes when I
see their big eyes looking up from my lap, I think that’s definitely a homeless
guy in a fur coat.” As Fey’s patience wore down, she thanked White for her
time and left. White courteously responded, “You have a good day, sir,” as
a crash was heard from inside the apartment. White turned to excoriate and
then hug Fluffy (Kenan Thompson), a disheveled black man in a fur coat,
who claimed he “was chasing a mouse.”
Forty years earlier, during a congressional committee hearing in the
late 1960s, as a Census Bureau official told the story, a congressman was
questioning statisticians from the bureau about the projected scope and
costs of the 1970 census. The tenor of the questions was highly critical
of the census. Why did the bureau need to ask so many questions? Didn’t
the proposed questions constitute an invasion of individual privacy by the
government? And why did the census cost so much?
Bureau officials responded patiently to each of the questions, though it
was clear that the congressman was not convinced. Why did the federal
government have to get involved in collecting statistics in the first place? the
congressman asked. After all, he continued, whenever he needed statistical
information, he just went and looked it up in an almanac.1
These two vignettes, one from the world of standup comedy and the
other from the staid world of a congressional hearing, open a window on the
paradoxes and dilemmas of the American decennial census. In both situations, one party to the colloquy doesn’t seem to grasp what the census is for
or what is being discussed. Both exchanges use humor and a bit of irony to
explicate the meaning of the census. And I would suggest that both provide
a clue to why the history related in this book is necessary.
Census officials told the story of the difficulties of explaining the census to a skeptical audience to illustrate the enormous ignorance they felt
when they tried to explain to the general public what they did, why they did
it, and how important their work was. Comedy skits about the census—and
the 2010 Saturday Night Live bit belongs to a long tradition of such skits—
capture the puzzlement, confusion, or sometimes downright hostility to
answering the questions on the census.2
Most of the time, census data are taken for granted. They seem to
most of us given, obvious, uncontroversial, part of the background
information we all absorb in our everyday lives. It doesn’t occur to us to
question how or where the almanac or, today, Wikipedia gets its information. And yet the census officials knew that taking the decennial census—or
many of our other modern statistical surveys—is an enormous organizational, intellectual, and financial exercise. On one level it is the simplest of
efforts—a counting of noses, a headcount—necessary for the apportionment of Congress and state legislatures. On another, it is a most complex
exercise, involving the collection of many bits of information on—among
other things—families, households, housing, consumer patterns, work, mobility, race, and ethnicity. All this information is published and analyzed and
introduction 
used to describe and monitor the social and economic condition of the
Every ten years the United States Census Bureau conducts a population census. Since 1970, all residents in the country have received a form in
the mail or a visit from a census enumerator. The form is checked in and
sent on to the Census Bureau to be entered into a computer. Census statisticians and technicians tabulate and cross tabulate the millions of records and
publish the census results for the nation, the states, and local areas.
The data is perhaps some of the most reliable information the nation
has. Every ten years, the United States takes a census, so every ten years
Americans have a new population count. They can look back to old censuses; they know exactly when the next one will occur. The census is deeply
embedded in American political life through myriad apportionment mechanisms; it is also a crucial marker for American history. Americans date the
end of the frontier from the 1890 census, the creation of the urban nation
at the 1920 census. They use it to project the population into the future:
What will the population be in ten years, a generation, a century?
What follows here is the story of the decennial population census—
how and why the United States has taken the census, and what its relevance
has been in American history. The story spans more than two centuries of
American life, along with the wars, economic changes, and social movements that have occurred in that time. It is also continuous, since the census
has been taken, tabulated, published, and interpreted at regular decennial
intervals starting in 1790. It is both a demographic and an institutional
history: a history of the development of the American population and
a study of the key statisticians, economists, politicians, and intellectuals
who ran the Census Office and the Census Bureau. These men—and until
quite recently, they were overwhelmingly men—made the decisions about
what questions to ask, how to tabulate the answers, what to publish in those
weighty volumes. In this way they put an irrevocable stamp on what we
know about the American people at any particular time.
This book thus encompasses a vast sweep across American history. I have
quite consciously chosen to take such a broad perspective in order to trace
the recurring themes that have surrounded the census. There is a highly
complex and continuous “politics of population” in the United States, and
the census is an apportionment tool for managing the controversies. Issues of
race and region, growth and decline, equity and justice, have been fought out
in census politics over the centuries, though because decades may pass
between flare-ups of particular issues, the participants often are unaware
of relevant earlier debates. A central goal of mine is to bring these earlier
debates to light and place them in their appropriate historical context.3
By the same token, however, I have sacrificed some detail in the discussion
of census history to prevent the book from growing to unmanageable length.
I have chosen not to treat the administrative and technical history of particular censuses systematically because much of this history is available elsewhere,
notably on the History web pages of the Census Bureau. I have elected to
focus almost exclusively in the decennial population census and thus to discuss other census efforts—economic censuses, vital statistics, current surveys,
and so forth—as they affect the decennial population census.4
The story is thus part social history, part intellectual and political
history: part a description of the remarkable changes that have taken place
in the United States in the past two hundred years, part a commentary on
how Americans have interpreted those changes and integrated the growing
regions and population groups into American society. The United States,
as the census-takers always knew, has one of the fastest growing and most
heterogeneous populations in the world. From a mere 3.9 million people
spread up and down the eastern seaboard in 1790, the American people
spread across, conquered, or overran the entire continent by 1890. There
were almost 63 million Americans by then. Having filled up the continent,
Americans proceeded to build great cities, fill them to bursting, and then
spread suburbs and metropolitan areas and exurbs over the land. There
are now more than 300 million Americans. In the nineteenth century, the
United States had one of the fastest growth rates of any nation in the
world; it stood as living proof of Malthus’s predictions of relentless
population growth.
But the growth told only a part of the story. For in addition to phenomenal
growth, there was extraordinary economic change. Like most of humankind,
Americans were primarily farmers until the late nineteenth century. That
prodigious growth in the nineteenth century was fueled by land-hungry
settlers pushing back the frontier and the American Indian population and
bringing new areas under cultivation. After about 1890, farming ceased to be
the major economic enterprise for most people in the advanced nations. The
Industrial Revolution had taken hold. Noticeable first in England in the late
eighteenth century, the changes in manufacturing and transportation spread
throughout the world in the nineteenth. Railroads replaced river and canal
transportation as the dominant inland transportation system. The factory
system replaced craft and home production. The United States began its
industrial transformation as it was still conquering the West. The two processes fueled each other and led to faster and more dramatic population growth
in certain areas. Chicago, a marshy settlement of just 4,500 souls when Boston
was already two centuries old, outgrew Philadelphia and had a population of
over a million in 1890.
introduction 
And where did all these people come from? Who made up this remarkable population that conquered a continent and built the richest country in
the world in the course of a little over a century? Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur
posed the question in the eighteenth century, and it has been asked and
answered repeatedly since—often with reference to information from the
census. For the very volatility of the population has meant that Crèvecoeur’s
question is not easy to answer. The simple answer is that the United States
had both high fertility rates and a large in-migration of people for much of
its history. Yet the population is also extremely heterogeneous, racially and
ethnically diverse, and highly mobile. That heterogeneity and diversity, as
American history reminds us, has both built the nation and periodically
ripped it apart in civil war and social conflict. The question of who are “true
Americans” has always been problematic. Americans have argued, struggled,
and died for their vision of the “American way of life” and to define whom
to include, or exclude, from the American polity and American dream.
In other words, the counting of the population and the measurement of
its growth and spread has also entailed its classification into heterogeneous
groups and the comparison of the demographic “progress” of the groups
with one another. Is the West growing faster than the East? Are the cities
growing at the expense of the countryside? Do immigrants have larger
families than native-born Americans? Is the Sunbelt overtaking the
Snowbelt? These questions, though seemingly leading to objective answers,
are politically charged and controversial. Their answers contain implications for social, economic, and political power.
The census statisticians were the messengers with the decennial news
about the trajectory of the population. They, sometimes in consultation
with, sometimes in opposition to, the nation’s political leaders determined
the categories and classifications that were used to interpret population
change. In turn, they created and shaped the very concepts we use to understand social change. They provided the basal readings, the baseline measures, the figures for the almanacs and the categories we think in. And they
did so quite consciously, debating whether to change their methods of
measuring or categorizing throughout the nation’s history.
In short, this history is also an attempt to explain just what census
officials and statisticians did and do and why that is important to American
social policy. In this sense the history of the census also provides an answer
to the congressman who did not understand why the government needed
to collect all that information. It belongs to a broader set of studies on the
history and politics of statistics and the social sciences. Most of this literature is cited at relevant points throughout the book, but a few preliminary
points can be made here.
Statistics, or the systematic collection and analysis of quantitative information about a population—human or otherwise—is a relatively recent form
of research knowledge. We have written histories dating back thousands of
years, chronicles, tales, and records, but the science of statistics dates from
the seventeenth century at the earliest. The great breakthroughs in data collection and analysis date from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The
United States was the first nation in the world to institute a regular census of
population, for example, for political apportionment. The extant quantitative knowledge from earlier periods has generally been reconstructed from
records and materials kept for other reasons. For example, parish registers
of births, deaths, and marriages were kept to keep track of the spiritual lives
of the church members—not to allow statisticians to calculate fertility or
mortality rates.5
Thus, we must look to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for the
ideas that informed the numbers that were collected and analyzed. By and
large, these numbers pertained to the nature of the state: hence the origin of
the word statistics. Such new knowledge of the population was a function
of the economic and population growth and industrial development of
the period. Mathematically, statistics is the inverse of gaming theory or
gambling—the theory of probability. The lottery player wants to beat the
“odds,” or the average; the statistician wants to know the average. The
mathematical foundation of the science of statistics, therefore, dates from
the late medieval or early modern period. But “statists” or “statisticians”
did not systematically apply those mathematical theories to the analysis
of human populations or social and economic change until the nineteenth
century. The body of rules for data collection, the various methods for the
determination of “the average,” and analysis of the correlates of a phenomenon were all developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Sampling theory and inductive statistics date from the early to midtwentieth century. The first statistical societies, notably the Royal Statistical
Society and the American Statistical Association, were founded in the first
half of the nineteenth century. The first American college textbooks on
statistics date from the 1880s and 1890s.9
In short, the American census was itself a pioneering institution in the
creation of modern social science. Its origins are rooted in the efforts of the
revolutionary leaders to develop a whole new series of governing instruments suitable for their experiment in republicanism. Its development and
“progress” is part and parcel of the broader political and social history of
the United States.