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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Jim Crow laws were the various legal mechanisms used to support white supremacy in the South, most notably the “separate but equal” statutes that enforced racial segregation. The name “Jim Crow” itself comes from a popular black caricature performed in minstrel shows during this time period. Under the one-drop rule anyone with known African ancestry would be considered exclusively black, regardless of physical appearance or any other known ancestry.

  2. 2.

    We use the term “whitening” throughout this article, as Degler (1971) did, to signal the direction of change in racial perceptions, not necessarily the ultimate categorization. According to this definition, classification changes from black to mulatto, mulatto to white, or black to white would all count as “whitening,” although we can capture only the first type of racial fluidity in our data.

  3. 3.

    We tested models using a woman’s own occupational status or her husband’s occupational status as the independent variable, and neither produced statistically significant results.

  4. 4.

    We also experimented with coding service workers, craftsman, and operatives as separate categories. The resulting models fit poorly and did not change our conclusions. Most importantly, the categories of craftsman and operative, which comprise the vast majority of skilled laborers, had similar effects on racial reclassification. These findings support our decision to use a single category of skilled labor.

  5. 5.

    Results for the non-South sample are available upon request. All models fit poorly with no statistically significant coefficients and with inconclusive substantive results in terms of the direction of the estimated coefficients.

  6. 6.

    This restriction results in a loss of 2 % to 5 % of Southern men for each of our time periods because of their outmigration between censuses. We do not drop more than 30 total cases because of migration in either time period. As a sensitivity analysis, we also estimated models in which anyone who moved between counties between time periods was excluded, and the results are similar, although the statistical power is reduced because of the smaller sample size.

  7. 7.

    We exclude already married individuals from this analysis to reduce endogenous explanations for any observed changes. Shifts in racial classification among previously married couples could be prompted by changes in either spouse’s characteristics, or by unobserved household characteristics that triggered the reclassification of both spouses.

  8. 8.

    Recently, scholars have suggested that the two countries may be moving closer to one another, at least along the dimension of continuous versus categorical distinction, with Brazil adopting a dichotomous categorization of whites and negros for its affirmative action policies and the United States beginning to recognize multiraciality and becoming increasingly diverse through immigration (Bonilla-Silva 2004; Skidmore 1993).

  9. 9.

    This overall lightening of the Brazilian population—above and beyond the effects of birth, death, and immigration—can be seen in the changing census racial distribution between 1950 and 1980 (de Carvalho et al. 2004). However, there is evidence that the “whitening” trend has been reversing, especially among highly educated Afro-Brazilians (Marteleto 2012; Schwartzman 2007).

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to Aliya Saperstein.

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Saperstein, A., Gullickson, A. A “Mulatto Escape Hatch” in the United States? Examining Evidence of Racial and Social Mobility During the Jim Crow Era. Demography 50, 1921–1942 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-013-0210-8

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Keywords

  • Race
  • Racial boundaries
  • Stratification
  • Occupational mobility
  • Survey measurement