Reflecting Race? The Role of the Census in U.S. Racial Discourse, 1860-1979

Aliya Saperstein, University of Oregon

The U.S. Census is often described as holding up a mirror to society; the population count and associated demographics reflect the reality—and diversity—of the American population. A less rosy view suggests the census creates the reality it counts as much as, if not more than, it catalogues objective facts about the population. As a case study of this issue, I examine the relationship between the racial categories employed in the decennial census and trends in popular media discourse about race. Preliminary results from a content analysis of eight major newspapers reveal little connection; rather, most of the variation in the use of racial terms reflects regional differences, or is driven by other political events (e.g., Chinese exclusion, WWII). These findings complicate claims that the census plays a major role in shaping how Americans think about race, and question the value of lobbying to be counted to gain social recognition.

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Presented in Poster Session 4