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Amalgamation, immigration, and the problem of racial and ethnic classification: New York City, 1890--1930

Teresa Elizabeth Leslie, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abstract

Contemporary literature pertaining to “race” reveals that it is an arbitrary socio-political construct. Contemporary population surveillance continues to use racial and ethnic variables when describing population parameters in the United States. ^ Through an analysis tracing the historical process of shifting racial/ethnic categories and identities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century United States, this dissertation investigates why vital statistics researchers continue to use these variables when describing patterns of health and disease. I define, trace, and investigate race as socio-historical process and hypothesize that it is invalid to assume that a racial classificatory standard exists. As a socio-historical process, racial categorizations and identifications vary over time and evidence of misclassification bias contribute to their invalidity. However, I do not assume that low misclassification bias equates validity. This assumption is potentially flawed and may lead to misguided research attempting to improve validity through reliability. Rather, low misclassification bias in reality masks the unstable and shifting nature of racial and ethnic categories and identifications. ^ The data used in this investigation is representative of individuals dying from tubercular infections in Manhattan Borough between 1890–1930. Similar to the present, the four-decade period, 1890–1930 was a time of rapid population growth of New York City and a period of international/national ethnic migration. International immigrant populations consisted of those individuals originating from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and the Caribbean; National migrants included African Americans and other marginalized “Native born” groups. All these populations shared a common experience of material hardship, resulting in their being at a higher risk for a number of communicable infectious and contagious diseases. However, the conflation of assigned race with socio-economic status adds a further dimension to be explored. ^ The study demonstrates that the United States possesses a racial culture where individuals both racially self-identify and impose racial identifications on others. Health and vital statisticians actively assist in the perpetuation and re-invention of racial culture when they collect, report and interpret data using racial variables. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)^

Subject Area

Black studies|Cultural anthropology|Physical anthropology|Public health

Recommended Citation

Leslie, Teresa Elizabeth, "Amalgamation, immigration, and the problem of racial and ethnic classification: New York City, 1890--1930" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3056253.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI3056253

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