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Des catégories et de leurs usages dans la construction sociale d’un groupe de référence : "race", "ethnie" et "communauté" aux Amériques (Mascipo)

Commentaries on Clara Rodriguez’ "Comparative Perspectives : Latinos, the Census and Race in the United States”

Jean-François Véran

Notes de la rédaction

Ce dossier est publié en collaboration avec le Journal de la Société des Américanistes. Le commentaire disponible dès maintenant sur Nuevo Mundo concerne donc un article du n°95-2 (2009) du JSA ( dont le résumé se trouve en annexe.

Texte intégral

1As I received the paper of Clara Rodriguez, I quickly went through the summary, leaving an in-depth reading for later. Right away, the question was raised: why do 40% of Latinos choose the SOR category? The answer not being in the summary itself, I went back to my activities with this enigma in mind and, with no knowledge of the situation whatsoever; I began to build up hypothesis. Then I did read the text and the reading rose a feeling of strangeness. The hypothesis I had spontaneously imagined was not actually developed. Discovering with this very rich paper the academic and political debates over the SOR choice, I measured the great difference in terms of these debates from those that, in France, are currently organizing the reflection over the opportunity to produce ethnic statistics.

2I then chose to comment this paper starting right from this feeling of strangeness, that is, to assume clearly the position from where I first read and understood it. This position is the one a French academic to whom the CNIL (National Committee Information and Liberty) hesitates to allow a question on ethnic origins in a research survey of his. This position is also the one of a French leaving for Brazil in two weeks for a 8 months field study on the opening of the political space to multiple forms of racial categorization (racial quotas…) and whose object is precisely to question the impact of these categorial experiences on the Brazilian political matrix.    

Categorial matrix and structures of signification

3The “Some Other Race” (SOR) choice questions the interaction between three forms of categorization :

4- Social : categorization by which social groups organize their representations, their power structures and resource mobilization. Cf. Giddens’ “structure of signification”.

5-Political : categories used by State in for public policies. They can also represent in the political space a form of legitimation for social categories.

6-Analytical : categorization of the social sciences, Census, national statistics. It is a classification of experience. In return, each classification constitutes the empirical version of a categorial theory.  

7The racial categorization question can then be raised at the interface between the three dimensions. Considering France and the USA, this interface seems to be built in a rather different way.

a) USA

8- Starts from a pragmatism. Races do exist as they are socially mobilized and organize the relation patterns between individuals and groups.

9-Therefore, this existence needs to be analytically informed, through national statistics, census, social sciences.

10-The social realities of race must then be politically taken into account. The analytical racial categories inform the public policies. Symmetrically, it is because racial categories are accounted politically that they need to be analytically informed (census).

11-A question would be then if the use of racial categories within the political space reinforces in its turn their social meanings.

b) France

12- Starts from a political fiction: art. 1 of the Constitution (no distinctions of origin, race or religion). Racial categories are right away evacuated from the political space.

13-Therefore, analytical racial categorization is forbidden. The US census would be illegal in France.

14-The racial neutrality of policymaking and statistical invisibility would eventually express the weak social meaning of racial categories. This political fiction of the inexistence of race distinction leads to the fiction of a non-racialized society. It is this fiction that is nowadays questioned by social movements.

15- Shall we follow this rough analysis; we would then have two patterns, each with a self-fulfilling efficacy. A “X” pattern leading to a racialization by excess, and a “Y” pattern leading to a racialization by default (political invisibility of the social uses of racial categories).

16- The paradox is that both models share an antiracist finality, but this finality is differently conceived.

17- In the US, except from some academics (Gilroy…), race is an irreducible category. The logic is to neutralize the negative meanings and uses of it and promote a positive racial affirmation: the question is then why 40% of Latinos choose the SOR category.

18- In France, the aim is to eradicate race as a social category upon the argument that it is analytically wrong (there are no distinct human races). The debate is then whether or not to produce ethnic (not racial) statistics.

19- Anyway, in the US as in France, there is currently a reflection on analytical categorization over race. In both cases, this reflection proceeds from how the evolution of the social uses of categories questions the political categories themselves. In the US, the hesitations of 40% Latinos have an impact on a political pattern for which races are fundamental categories. In France, the debate rises from those who question the political invisibility of racial social uses. In both cases, the question is not in itself the production or redefinition of racial analytical categories, but indeed the challenging of structures of signification by social groups who then question the political meanings and uses of racial categories.

20- To organize this commentary, it would be interesting to question the French debate from the US racial pragmatism. Symmetrically, it would be interesting to question the US debate over the SOR choice from the French political fiction. It is precisely from this last perspective that I would now like to address more specific comments to Clara Rodriguez’ paper. So, if we consider the SOR question from the political French fiction, what could we say?  

2) The SOR choice from the French racial fiction perspective

21- In the US social sciences as amongst most policymakers, there is a consensus over not defining race biologically but as a social construction.

22- However, we can wonder what the meaning of race in the census is indeed. Is it totally exempt from biological perspective, as suggested by analytical categorization?

23- If in the Census, race is only taken in a social dimension, then the problem is not to know why the Latinos don’t identify racially through regular categories and even less to know how to make them identify (cf. debate over questions ordering, SOR category suppression…). The problem would rather be to know how to adapt the racial categories in the census to the evolution of their social uses. Finally, the question could be: if, resolving the hypothesis of a misunderstanding of the race question, less and less individuals identify racially, then, do we have to keep on racially categorizing?

24- As shown by Clara Rodriguez, the race denial theory is indeed explored, but there don’t seem to be a debate over suppressing racial categorization. There seem to be what Peter Fry calls a “resistance of race”. Against the thesis by Julius Wilson of a « declining significance of race”, this “resistance of race” is shown by many academics as Lois Benjamin in « The Black elite, still facing the color line in the twilight of the 21st century” or Kristen Myers in “Racetalk  : racism hiding in plain sight”…

25- What these academics also show, is that this resistance of race in its social uses is based on a resistance of race defined in the classical categories of biological race. The hypothesis here is that racial categorization based on social uses doesn’t invalidate the reality that these social uses can be based on biologic representations.  Analytical categorization of “social race” can then be congruent with the social belief of a biological race and contribute to the reproduction of this belief.

26- This resistance of race finally echoes the insistence in public policies in maintaining race as a fundamental category. There again, we can ask what is the meaning of race mobilized in these policies. There again, the structure of signification of political race seems to be in the interface between social and biological approach. In the census, this observation is suggested by the existence of a specific question on race in addition to the question on ethnicity (in GB : only “ethnic group” with a mestizo category. South Africa : “ethnic origin” with a mestizo category, no race asked). If ethnicity is to race what gender is to sex, then racial categories refer somehow to a combination of an essentialist and social understanding of race. This is also what suggests the « one-drop rule of race ».

27- Going back to the 40% SOR Latinos, the hypothesis would then be that, facing this resistance of race, there would be an increasing resistance to race. From passive racial identification to racial identification denial, from political blackness to ethnicity refuge, from “passing” attempts through whitening to the dream of a political ghetto: they would be multiple forms of resistance, that is, attempts to challenge race or its structure of signification, or to benefit from it by trying to fluidify its frontiers.  


28What is finally suggested here, is that in a census, analytical categorization in not neutral as it is connected to a national project. Precisely, the structure of signification of race is kept within a structure of domination opposing white to black. If race resists, it would then less be due to the rigidity of social practices that are finally rather fluid (not only culturally: as soon as in 1920, the census had shown that 75% of blacks were already of mixed blood. Interracial and interethnic relations are developing in many dimensions), than to the political resistance to the evolution of racial structure of signification, and therefore structure of domination. For many Latinos, the problem would be that historically, mestizagem is out of the national project. Brownness is out of the national project. For instance, this is why in her chapter on brownness, Kirsten Myers defines the browns as “others” because it is, as she shows, how racetalk considers them. Do some Latinos express their position of “others” choosing the Some Other Race option?

29For Charles Sanders Peirce, classifications and categories are ideas so large that they must be understood rather as “moods” or “tones” of thinking rather than defined notions. Finally, we could wonder if, as the US population is changing in “tones”, the country is not changing in “moods” when it comes to racial categories. Then, from a sociological point of view, the object wouldn’t be the 40% Latinos choosing SOR, but the percentage of those who, holding tight to a historical structure of racial domination, wouldn’t allow these Latinos not to identify racially or to identify through redefined racial categories. The object for a race resistance understanding would then be those in position of saying the words of the poet Adrienne Rich (1974): “this is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you”.

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Contestations Over Classifications: Latinos, the Census And Race in the United States

Clara E. Rodríguez

The divergence between popular and state classifications of peoples has become increasingly important with the growing migration of peoples around the world. This paper examines this issue by focusing on one group (Latinos in the US) at one historical juncture (the late 20th-early 21st centuries). After examining the evolution of US census « race » categories in the context of shifting political, economic, and scientific trends, it reviews Hispanic/Latinos’ responses to questions of « race » on the US census and the theories that have surfaced to explain why so many Latinos choose the « Some Other Race » category on the census. It also chronicles the US government’s efforts to discourage such responses and force Latinos into more traditional US race categories. The global uniqueness of the US’s « race » concept is also underscored.

race, ethnicity, classifications, social construction of race, census, Hispanics, Latinos, United States, France.

Débats autour des classifications: les latinos, le recensement et la question raciale aux États-Unis.

Les divergences entre les classifications courantes des individus et celles des États ont gagné en importance avec l’augmentation du nombre de personnes immigrées à travers le monde. Cet article ne traite que d’un groupe, celui des Latinos aux États-Unis, à ce point de contact entre la fin du xxe siècle et le début du xxie siècle. Après avoir rappelé l’évolution des catégories de « races » dans le recensement nord-américain, ce dans le contexte politique, économique et scientifique changeant des dernières décennies, on s’intéressera à la réponse des Hispaniques/Latinos à la question de la « race » et aux explications qui ont été données au pourquoi du choix que tant d’entre eux ont fait de la catégorie « autre race ». On fera aussi l’historique des efforts du gouvernement des États-Unis pour décourager une telle réponse et forcer les Latinos à se positionner dans des catégories de races plus traditionnelles. La place du concept de « race », unique aux États-Unis, sera également soulignée.

race, ethnicité, classifications, construction sociale des races, recensements, Hispaniques, Latinos, États-Unis, France.

Divergencias sobre las clasificaciones: los latinos, el censo y las razas en los Estados Unidos.

Las divergencias entre las clasificaciones comunes de la gente y las de los estados ha crecido sustancialmente con el aumento de las migraciones a nivel mundial. En ese trabajo se tratará de un solo grupo, los latinos en los Estados unidos, entre el final del siglo xx y el inicio del siglo xxi. Después de haber revisado la evolución de las categorías raciales utilizadas por los censos de los EU en el marco de las transformaciones políticas, económicas y científicas recientes, se examinarán las respuestas de los latinos a la pregunta sobre la(s) raza(s) y las interpretaciones que se han venido dando al porqué de su elección – tan frecuente – de la categoría « Otra raza ». Se revisarán también los esfuerzos que el gobierno de los Estados unidos ha realizado para controlar este tipo de respuesta y forzar a los latinos a elegir una categoría racial más tradicional. Se discute igualmente el concepto de raza tal como se aplica de forma sin equivalente en los Estados unidos.

raza, etnicidad, clasificaciones, construcción social de las razas, censo, hispanos, latinos, Estados Unidos, Francia.

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Jean-François Véran, « Commentaries on Clara Rodriguez’ "Comparative Perspectives : Latinos, the Census and Race in the United States” »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 26 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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