Working Paper No. 320 | January 2001

“Race or People”

Federal Race Classifications for Europeans in America, 1898–1913

In 1898, the United States Bureau of Immigration initiated a classification of immigrants into some 40 categories of "race or people." Nearly all the categories covered Europeans. In 1909 an effort was made to extend this system of classification to the US Census, and the relevant measure passed in the Senate. From the outset, organizations representing a segment of American Jews strongly opposed the measure, although not on the grounds of racism. But other groups of immigrants, including Jews, strongly supported the new racial classification of Europeans for the census. A compromise replaced the proposed new race question with a "mother-tongue" question. The paper explains the origin and development of the classification system and the ensuing controversy; extensive verbatim transcripts (in which participants argue their conception of race in the context of other terms) and unpublished letters constitute the basic sources. The "race or people" classification was immensely important in its own right, since our knowledge of the socioeconomic characteristics of immigrants in the first half of the 20th century is organized in terms of that classification. But the topic is interesting for much broader reasons: discussion of a seemingly narrow and technical matter, namely a statistical classification scheme, illuminates the meaning of race for the debaters and sheds light on the dynamics of ideas, bureaucracy, and organized opposition to official procedures.

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