A Mulatto Escape Hatch? Examining Evidence of U.S. Racial and Social Mobility in the Jim Crow Era

Aliya Saperstein, University of Oregon
Aaron Gullickson, University of Oregon

The association between being “mulatto” and having higher status than other Americans with African ancestry has been well-documented in the historical United States. However, in census data, classification as mulatto depended on the decisions of enumerators; thus, it is unclear whether being recorded as mulatto was related to advantages that accrued specifically to people with mixed African and European ancestry, or a self-fulfilling prophecy of social turned racial status as perceived by others, or both. We examine evidence for a recursive relationship between racial and social status among Americans of African ancestry, using person fixed-effects models and panel data from the IPUMS Linked Representative Samples. Preliminary results suggest that the likelihood of being perceived as mulatto was related to increases in occupational status among men, but only in the South. We also find high levels of fluidity in mulatto classification between censuses -- including notable “downward” racial mobility.

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Presented in Session 175: Rethinking Racial Distinctions