, Volume 50, Issue 5, pp 1921–1942 | Cite as

A “Mulatto Escape Hatch” in the United States? Examining Evidence of Racial and Social Mobility During the Jim Crow Era

  • Aliya SapersteinEmail author
  • Aaron Gullickson


Racial distinctions in the United States have long been characterized as uniquely rigid and governed by strict rules of descent, particularly along the black-white boundary. This is often contrasted with countries, such as Brazil, that recognize “mixed” or intermediate racial categories and allow for more fluidity or ambiguity in racial classification. Recently released longitudinal data from the IPUMS Linked Representative Samples, and the brief inclusion of a “mulatto” category in the U.S. Census, allow us to subject this generally accepted wisdom to empirical test for the 1870–1920 period. We find substantial fluidity in black-mulatto classification between censuses—including notable “downward” racial mobility. Using person fixed-effects models, we also find evidence that among Southern men, the likelihood of being classified as mulatto was related to intercensal changes in occupational status. These findings have implications for studies of race and inequality in the United States, cross-national research on racial classification schemes in the Americas, and for how demographers collect and interpret racial data.


Race Racial boundaries Stratification Occupational mobility Survey measurement 



A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the Population Association of America, Washington, DC. We are grateful to Ann Morning and Roy Mill for their helpful comments and suggestions, and to Krystale Littlejohn for research assistance.

Supplementary material

13524_2013_210_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (141 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 140 kb)


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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of OregonEugeneUSA

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