External and internal borders in the US census in a historical perspective (1790-1940)
The history of the United States, like that of many countries, has long been written from a strictly national perspective. It has also, at times, been marked by the paradigm of exceptionalism.
This presentation focuses on national norms, specifically population categories produced for the U.S. census, to show how one of the fruits of placing U.S. history in a broader context is to show how technical tools of governance like the census are part and parcel of a national history that is specific rather than exceptional. The transatlantic dimension of this paper is present both in the fact that the theoretical framework of this research owes much to a body of historiography originating in Europe, namely the recent history of the social construction of statistics. In fact, this largely European endeavor could be very helpful for scholars working on the history of state building in the United States. This presentation examines how political decisions and bureaucratic implementation caused the U.S. census to be used as tool to build a national community while also organizing and dividing the nation into separate (and unequal) groups.
The ways in which racial and ethnic categories were constructed, negociated, and imposed through the U.S. census participate in a distinctive national tradition that gives race and ethnicity an unusual importance in the statistical representation of the American population. This specifity was rarely questioned or challenged in the U.S.