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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop 6 - The Census: Who We Think We Arehomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 6:  Lectures & Activities

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Lecture Transcript Two:
Race and Ethnicity As Census Categories

Lecturer: Professor Evelynn Hammonds

photo of Evelynn Hammonds

I think all of your answers indicate a couple things. One: We know basically from family history who we are, who we think we are, right? And two, we check something that sort of reflects the closest to what we think we know from our family history. But there are other pieces that aren't going to be captured -- the pieces you don't know, the pieces that don't quite fit into the available categories or whatever.

Now, that should maybe raise in your mind something that's worth considering, as to then what do we need the categories for? If they don't reflect necessarily biological realities, and they reflect a kind of mushy social reality because everybody's a little unclear about parts of their ancestry, family history, we know pieces and we don't know other pieces of it, we pick and choose along the way, so when we count in this way, via these categories, we have to ask ourselves what, in fact, we're actually getting.

So what does it all mean? At the end of the 19th century, race was a concept that integrated biological, cultural, and linguistic differences between human peoples. And as I noted earlier, race in America had by that time come to be firmly associated with morphological traits and biological inheritance. By the 1930s, "ethnicity" was the term that was used to designate national origin and, specifically, language and cultural differences between peoples.

Over the course of the 20th century, as scientists learned more about the mechanisms of heredity and evolution, the idea of race as a good explanation of the biological variation in the human species became increasingly contested. That is, earlier, people thought that these physical differences that we see between us actually are both the sign of deeper differences, and that these differences really are sort of in here in particular groups that are exclusive. What we learned about from heredity and evolution [is] that this idea doesn't quite work when you want to talk about the variation in the human species. Indeed, many biologists now reject the idea of race as a useful biological concept, since it doesn't really correlate well with the reality and the complexities of human biological variation. And for many reasons, biologists began to move toward the idea that this old notion of race -- that we can look at people and determine who they are, that these phenotypical differences actually mean something biologically significant -- came under great scrutiny, in particular as a result of discoveries and research in genetics.

So I think this brings us to thinking about what this thing called race is. It's often said that race is a social construction, and what does this mean? I mean, a lot of people talk about the social construction of race, and they've offered many explanations about it. I think in simple terms, the social construction of race means that the modern idea of race was invented by humans as a way of perceiving and interpreting human differences, but the racial categories we use are not natural. They don't exist out there in nature as biological realities, but that they are really social-cultural concepts based in history, and, in limited ways, I would argue, science.

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