Political Discourse on Racial Mixture: American Newspapers, 1865 to 1970

Political Discourse on Racial Mixture: American Newspapers, 1865 to 1970

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the MPSA Annual National Conference
Palmer House Hotel
Hilton, Chicago, IL

Jennifer L. Hochschild, Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government & Professor of African and African American Studies
Harvard University

Brenna Marea Powell
Harvard University

Vesla Weaver, Assistant Professor
The Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics
University of Virginia

We trace American political discourse around multiracialism, race-mixing, and mixed-race people from the end of the Civil War through the civil rights era. We use two new sources of data: counts of keywords such as “mulatto” and “multiracial” in two black and four white newspapers over 150 years, and a content analysis of themes and assumptions in almost 2,100 articles from the same newspapers, also using keywords that indicate racial mixture.

These datasets provide evidence on two analytic and two substantive points: First, the press’s treatment of mixture permits us to analyze “racial meaning,” defined as the varied ways in which Americans construe, practice, and judge group-based identities and identifications. Second, the datasets enable us to trace the timing of changes in ideas about racial meaning, and to map these changes onto a new periodization of distinct institutional treatments of racial mixture. Substantively, the dataset show vividly how much Americans argued over what counted as a race, how people were to be allocated to and across races, and what implications racial groupings should have. The contemporary racial order, which looks inevitable and orderly in hindsight, was not at all clear while it was being created. Most importantly, the language of the newspaper articles shows vividly that Americans’ debates over racial mixture and racially mixed people were (and continue to be) a critical site for contestation over racial hierarchy, advance, and equality.

Read the entire paper here.

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