A Brief History of The Census and Race in the United States

“White,” “Indian,” “Negro,” and “Mulatto” in North America

The English were not the only ones who helped establish race in the wider Americas of the Western Hemisphere. Even before 1492, racial thinking among Europeans from the Iberian peninsula had been influenced by their involvement and exchange with Moors from northern Africa. In the 1500s, Iberians had regular interactions with Indigenous Americans and the Spanish and Portuguese both engaged in the trans-Atlantic African slave trade. The French, English, Dutch, and other Europeans also formulated racial interpretations of Africans and Native Americans in the sixteenth century. It was during this time that English colonists picked up most of their racial lexicon from the Spanish, including the terms “Negro” (Negro/Black), “Indian” (Indio), and “Mulatto.”

While both the English and Spanish mixed with Indigenous peoples and Africans, a significant difference emerged in the frequency with which they engaged in this type of intermixture. The English largely became settler colonists in North America, meaning they attempted to (re)create replicas of English society, separate from Native Americans and distanced from the African slaves within their midst. Class and gender were important themes here as well, for one’s “race” in Europe had long concerned lineal ties to nobility or royal bloodlines passed down through the paternal line. Elite Spanish and Portuguese certainly looked down on intermixture with “Indians” and “Negroes,” much the same as the English. However, compared to the English, gendered demographics and immigration patterns in the Americas led to a much closer proximity between Iberian men and Indigenous women, along with Africans, who mixed among both populations.

Also, compared to the Protestant English, the Catholic empires legally extended further rights to those of African or Indigenous ancestry in the colonial Americas (although laws on paper did not always translate into everyone’s lived experience). While still discriminatory, Iberian societies generally allowed for greater social mobility among free people of color, especially mestizos and mulattos, and intermixture was generally more accepted than in English North America. Thus, Latin America began to emerge as a mestizo America, while English colonies in North America actively attempted to avoid the same in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The first colonial laws in English North America identified “Mulattoes” and other persons of “mixed blood” as a problem to be solved. After all, it was difficult for colonial planters and other slaveholding elites to keep mixed-heritage people in bondage if they had a free European mother or father. Over the late 1600s and early 1700s, colonial authorities used a process of legal trial and error to find ways to keep as many “Negroes,” “Mulattoes,” “Mustees,” and other children of mixed ancestry in bondage. Most times, English officials put these people in slavery, indentured servitude, or prolonged terms of servitude, which amounted to de facto slavery. By the eve of the U.S. Revolution, “Negroes” and “Mulattoes,” as well as “Indians,” were commonly found written into the same discriminatory laws, as Europeans relegated people of color to the same debased positions in society, below “whites.”

Most Founding Fathers, along with the majority of Euro-Americans, repeatedly chose to adopt ideas of racial difference in the United States, and this is how the English colonial legacy of racial hierarchy became cemented in the foundation of the young nation. The U.S. Revolution removed British control under monarchy and laid a path for the modern republic to flourish and advance two racially based projects: African American slave labor and the annexation of Native Americans lands. Many Euro-Americans used both state and federal institutions to uphold and justify racial projects that cast “Negroes” and “Indians” as problems that the U.S. had to deal with as the nation expanded across North America.

Even as some Euro-Americans attempted to negotiate on fair terms with Indigenous peoples or tried to limit the reach and longevity of slavery, those in power prevailed as they sought to maximize financial gain. Those who led the U.S. Revolution and established the founding documents of the burgeoning nation allowed business interests and monetary wealth to influence their decision making. Under patriarchal governmental systems, which limited the rights of women, men in power routinely compromised with the interests of slaveholders, committing continual injustices upon the original inhabitants of America as they carried out a series of intrusions across the land.