18 August 2016

Census Data and the Social Construction of Race

Since Franz Boas, anthropologists have argued that race is not a biological but a social fact that varies across time and place. Using the US Census, Vox underscores this view, asserting that 220 years of census data proves race is a social construct (2016).

Surveying the changing racial categories used in the US census clearly demonstrates how something that many still take to be biological is actually something cultural. Rather than being fixed (based on biology and therefore unchanging) these are categories that rely on ideas of difference that are socially meaningful in a particular time and place, drawing on a range of signifiers (e.g. national origin, phenotype).

This piece is also interesting for how it underscores the census itself as a tool of power. Censuses (and census makers and takers) can create or support social categories of difference and the social inequality founded on these ideas of difference. In the classroom, we can use this article to think about how social ideas of difference, such as race, and how we/ our governments account for them have wider reaching effects.

US Census Categories for Asians in 1890 (Vox)

US Census Categories for Asians in 1940 (Vox)

US Census Categories for Asians in 2010 (Vox)