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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) – Paris, EHESS, 13-15 décembre 2006
James Cohen

Comments on Mara Loveman, “Whiteness in Latin America as Seen Through Official Statistics (1870-1930)”


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

  • 1 The countries examined include Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, El (...)

1Although this article can legitimately present itself, as it does at the outset, as an ironic Latin American counterpoint to U.S.-based critical “whiteness” studies, its main subject – the politics of race in census-taking in Latin America – is obviously of great importance in itself. The paper examines censuses and their accompanying commentary in more than a dozen Latin American countries over the period of 1870 to 1930.1 What Mara Loveman does above all is to show how governing elites constructed and utilized the ethnoracial categories employed in their national censuses. She brings alive what might otherwise appear as dry archival material by showing that censuses are anything but simple sets of statistical data; the categories and assumptions behind them are shown to make up a coherent social narrative in the service of certain social and political objectives. The story nearly all the censuses examined sought to tell, above and beyond important regional demographic variations, and with no small dose of interpretive imagination, was one of “whitening”, construed as cultural progress, and often explicitly as “racial” progress, following the “scientific” theories of race prevalent at the time. “Whitening”, as it emerges from this literature, reveals itself to be a key narrative of self-affirmation for white creole or mestizo elites who seek to present their nation-states as having chosen the royal (white) road to the modern age and as being less and less encumbered by the weaker and less presentable (that is, non-white) components of their national heritage.

2I will be brief because I have no particular criticisms of this article and practically nothing but positive things to say about it. It is a panoramic piece, which certainly covers enough geographical terrain to prove beyond a doubt that the whitening trope was a widespread one. The whitening narrative is very usefully broken down into three major themes which Mara Lovement shows to have been emphasized in varying combinations and degrees by country: 1) immigration as a source of new white inhabitants; 2) mestizaje, construed as a process by which “white” racial and cultural features could be seen as triumphing; and 3) differential rates of reproduction which “supposedly demonstrated the higher rates of natural increase of lighter ‘types’”. Thanks to this thematic presentation of how the whitening narrative works, much of the material presented feeds usefully into cross-national comparisons and suggests fruitful paths for future research in that vein.

  • 2 In the case of Brazil, I would recommend, among works available in English, Melissa Nobles, Shades (...)

3The only possible disadvantage of the panoramic approach is that, by definition, the historicity of individual national cases cannot be explored very deeply. By showing very clearly how censuses function as “a symbolically critical piece of nation-state building”, Mara Loveman implicitly raises further questions about how, more broadly, such narratives are constructed and how they operate. For example, how did the Brazilian version of the whitening narrative, as illustrated through census data and commentary, relate to the discourse of “racial democracy”? And how does the Mexican discourse of the “raza cósmica”, to which she briefly alludes, also feed into a discourse of whitening despite the exceptional foregrounding, in the Mexican censuses examined, of the raza indígena”? These questions are not explored. This is by no means a reproach however, since there are other, more specialized or monographic sources – several of which the author refers to in her bibliography – to which readers can turn for further exploration of specific national cases.2

4While this paper is first of all a solid contribution to historiography, the more current issues it raises in its epilogue (“‘Race’ and Census-Taking in Latin America into the 21st century”) are also very compelling, as we shall see below.

Whiteness in the Americas, north and south

  • 3 Indeed Loveman credits the U.S. whiteness scholars as having revealed that “for some European immig (...)

5A key subtheme of the article, as noted above, is the comparison and contrast between Latin America and the U.S. While the idea of whiteness as an “achievable state” in U.S. history was one of the great novel insights of U.S.-centered critical whiteness studies in the 1990s, Mara Loveman points out that it comes as no great surprise to scholars of Latin America, long accustomed to discourses to the effect that “individuals, families, even entire communities may move across racial boundaries to ‘become white’”. The major difference, of course, is that in the U.S., those groups which have been “admitted” over time into whiteness, according to authors such as David Roediger and Matthew Frye Jacobson, were already of European extraction (Irish, Italians, etc.),3 whereas in Latin America those who are seen as having “become white” (or nearly so) in Latin America are indigenous peoples – certain selected ones at least. Loveman cites the striking example of the Bolivian census of 1900, in which the indigenous peoples of the sierra are presented as contributing to the whitening process even without directly mixing with whites, by themselves bearing sufficient resemblance to whites. By its very exceptionality, this example shows what was so fundamentally different between Latin American and U.S. attitudes to “whitening”: in the U.S. the hegemony of whites was affirmed against and in spite of the presence of people defined as black, according to a broad definition which includes nearly all people who are products of black-white unions, and for whom “whitening” is not a possibility; whereas in Latin America whitening takes place largely through mestizaje, not in spite of it. “When ‘whites’ mixed with ‘non-whites’”, says Mara Loveman of Latin America, “the result was not the ‘pollution’ and degeneration of whiteness, but the ‘improvement and regeneration of non-whiteness” whereas in the United States, “whiteness as a collective trait could only be sullied by exposure to and iinteraction with non-white peoples”.

Into the 21st century

  • 4 New York, Saint Martin’s Press (An LA Weekly Book), 2002, Introduction, p. 1-29.

6While this paper is mostly about Latin America and refers to the U.S. mostly by way of comparison, its firm historical grounding also makes it useful for better understanding what is happening now that the presence of the south is growing in the north. In recent years, the increasing demographic presence and public visibility of Latinos in the U.S. has given rise to certain upbeat discourses, with a progressive tinge to them, to the effect that the presence of Latinos is destined in itself to help U.S. society to overcome its obsession with race and in particular its rigid white/black dichotomy, not only because Latinos themselves “come in all colors”, but because they come from societies where mestizaje has long been rooted in the mores. A typical example of such a perspective would be Ed Morales’ Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America,4 which speaks of “a forward-looking race that obliterates all races” and borrows from José Vasconcelos an idealized vision of a people thriving on mixture, for whom color differences no longer matter. While Mara Loveman’s paper does not address this question explicitly, it helps provide a more balanced and more sobering perspective about Latin America; that is, it helps to remind us that even though mestizaje has been a widespread phenomenon in Latin America and has even in some cases been officially adopted as the image of society itself, this has not prevented elites from constructing a white-centered and Eurocentric discourse according to which the road to modernity and progress is the road away from indigenous or African cultures. Nor has widespread mestizaje ever implied the guarantee that Latin American peoples would be definitively liberated from racism and that all barriers, cultural and socio-economic, would be lifted among people of different origins.

  • 5 For Quijano the notion of coloniality of power refers first of all to a “systematic racial division (...)

7It is only in recent decades, as Mara Loveman shows toward the end of her paper, that national elites in Latin America have taken distance in their census-taking methods from the more overtly racist and ethnocentric aspects of the whitening discourse that predominated during the period of her study. But this does not mean that ethnoracial hierarchies themselves have been overcome, only that official lexicons for describing society, having (mostly) done away with overtly racializing terminology, have turned instead toward systems of distinctions that emphasize differences in cultural practices – a thin cover for distinctions that often remain highly ethnoracially marked. This shift toward a more culturalist and apparently race-neutral vocabulary has in some cases cast itself as multiculturalist discourse in which diversity (or the image of the mosaic) is valued for its own sake. These discourses are only now starting to be questioned in turn. If, to borrow a notion developed by the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano (and to which Mara Loveman may or may not subscribe), the “coloniality of power”5 is still deeply rooted in today’s societies, then what she suggests strongly in her closing section is the need to update the analysis of its forms.

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Whiteness in Latin America: Measurement and Meaning in National Censuses (1850-1950)

Mara Loveman

Drawing on an analysis of all national censuses conducted in Latin America from 1850 to 1950, this article examines how tacit assumptions about the nature of « whiteness » informed the production of statistical knowledge about Latin American populations. For insight into implicit racial beliefs that shaped censustaking in this period, the article considers how census agents accomplished three basic tasks: 1) identifying the « race » of individuals in the population; 2) preparing statistical tables to publicize census results; and, 3) projecting the racial composition of national populations in the future. The analysis identifies variation in notions of « whiteness » across the region, but also points to a set of broadly shared premises about the nature, value, and boundaries of whiteness that transcended nation-state boundaries in this period. Fundamental similarities in ideas about whiteness found in Latin American censuses appear even more starkly when the scope of analysis expands to include the censuses of the United States.

census, race, racial classification, whiteness, Latin America.

La blancura en América Latina: medición y sentido en los censos nacionales (1850-1950)

A partir del análisis de todos los censos nacionales realizados en América Latina entre 1850 y 1950, este artículo examina cómo las premisas tácitas sobre la « blancura » formaron parte de la producción del saber estadístico sobre las poblaciones latinoamericanas. Con el fin de esclarecer las creencias raciales implícitas que se plasmaron en los censos de este período, el artículo distingue tres funciones básicas realizadas por los agentes del censo: 1) identificar la « raza » de cada individuo; 2) preparar cuadros estadísticos para publicar los resultados; 3) proyectar la composición racial futura de la población nacional. El análisis identifica variaciones en las nociones de la « blancura » a través de la región, pero también establece un conjunto de premisas ampliamente compartidas sobre la naturaleza, el valor, y los deslindes de la « blancura », que sobrepasaban las fronteras nacionales de esa época. Estas premisas compartidas son aún más notables cuando se comparan con las premisas implícitas y explícitas sobre la « blancura » que informaban los censos de los Estados Unidos de América durante el mismo período.

censo, raza, clasificación racial, blancura, America Latina.

Les Blancs en Amérique latine: mesure et signification dans les recensements nationaux (1850-1950)

Fondé sur l’analyse de tous les recensements nationaux effectués en Amérique latine entre 1850 et 1950, le présent article examine la façon dont certains paradigmes tacites sur la « blancheur » ont modelé la production de connaissance statistique sur les populations latino-américains. Afin de clarifier les croyances raciales implicites qui se sont exprimées dans ces recensements, l’article distingue trois opérations de base effectuées par les agents du recensement: 1) identifier la « race » de chaque individu; 2) préparer des tableaux statistiques pour la publication des résultats; 3) projeter la future composition raciale de la population nationale. L’analyse identifie des variations dans la notion de « Blanc » à travers la région, mais révèle aussi une série de paradigmes largement partagés sur la nature, la valeur et les limites de ce qu’est un Blanc, qui traversait les frontières nationales de l’époque. La recherche conclut que les similitudes régionales en Amérique latine sur la signification de la « blancheur » sont encore plus remarquables quand on les compare avec les paradigmes implicites et explicites sur la « blancheur » dans les recensements des États-Unis pendant la même période.

recensement, race, classification raciale, blancheur, Amérique latine.

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1 The countries examined include Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and Cuba (others are also briefly mentioned).

2 In the case of Brazil, I would recommend, among works available in English, Melissa Nobles, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Stanford University Press, 2000), which is a comparison between Brazil and the U.S.; or Howard Winant, Racial Conditions: Politics, Theory, Comparisons (University of Minnesota Press, 1994), in which the Brazilian and U.S. examples are also foremost.

3 Indeed Loveman credits the U.S. whiteness scholars as having revealed that “for some European immigrants to the U.S., unqualified ‘whiteness’ had to be (and could be) achieved”. However, critics of the whiteness current such as Peter Kolchin (whose work she quotes), express some doubt that the problem can be posed so neatly in these terms: see Kolchin’s “Whiteness Studies II: An Update on the New History of Race in America”, to be presented in this conference.

4 New York, Saint Martin’s Press (An LA Weekly Book), 2002, Introduction, p. 1-29.

5 For Quijano the notion of coloniality of power refers first of all to a “systematic racial division of labor” which was a key component of the matrix of power instituted early on by Spanish and Portuguese colonizers in the Americas and which became a defining feature of the modern capitalist world-system. See, for example, “Colonialidad del poder, eurocentrismo y América Latina” in Edgardo Lander (ed.), La colonialidad del saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas latinoamericanas, CLACSO, 2005, p. 201-246.

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James Cohen, « Comments on Mara Loveman, “Whiteness in Latin America as Seen Through Official Statistics (1870-1930)” », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2009, consulté le 16 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.57384

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James Cohen

Dept. of Political Science
Université de Paris VIII

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