Melissa Nobles is interested in counting. The tallies that most intrigue her involve racial counting — the politics propelling it and the consequences coming in its wake. More specifically, Nobles is interested in how the census — both in the United States and Brazil — has used racial categorization through history for political purposes. In Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Stanford University Press, 2000), Nobles explores how political pressures have influenced racial categorization over the past two centuries.

An associate professor of political science, Nobles probed the hidden similarities and clear differences in the approach to racial counting in both countries, each a former major slaveholding nation. “The census is not neutral in either country, especially when it comes to ideas about race. In both cases,” she says, “the census assumes there’s something called ‘race,’ that we can count it, and there’s something at stake in finding out about it. People in both countries have used the census to try to change racial discourse itself.”

For starters, Nobles discounts the notion that the U.S. is color-blind. “We like to envision ourselves as being color-blind. But for all of our nation’s history, that hasn’t been the case. For me, examining the census has been a way of documenting that.” Not opposed to using race in the census, Nobles says it’s important “to be clear why we’re using it, and recognize that the categories are broad and imprecise.”

Consider the first U.S. census, in 1790. In that count, the categories were “free white males,” “free white females,” “all other free persons,” and “slaves” — all concerned about civil status, but also marked by racial identifiers. By 1850, the categories had morphed to “white,” “black,” “mulatto,” Chinese,” and “Indian.” Explains Nobles: “In the 18th and 19th centuries, many people were trying to figure out the meaning of human differences. Christians were asking, ‘Did God make it that way?’ ‘What was His design?’ Science — what historians now describe as race science — was looking for natural truth.” Citing the scientist Josiah Nott from Alabama, Nobles shows Nott’s campaign to prove that mulattoes were more fragile and less fertile than either whites or blacks, that their ‘vital force’, in the words of the times, was inferior — precisely because they were a product of separate species. But Nott needed statistics to prove his case for polygenesis, and he succeeded in persuading Congress to add the mulatto category.
Prof. Nobles

Assoc. Prof. Melissa Nobles examines the national census in the U.S. and Brazil and explores the politics that lie behind the counting.


Nobles’ interest in the politics behind the census began when she was a Yale graduate student in the early 1990s. While working for the Ford Foundation in Rio de Janeiro one summer, she came across an organization campaigning to have Brazilians identify themselves as a darker color on their national census. Their goal was to prove vast discrimination according to color. “Is this political?” she had asked herself. “Or social science?” The answer to that question became the subject of her dissertation, and ultimately her first book.

More recently, Nobles has focused her exploration on official apologies. Some — such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologizing for the potato famine of the 1850s — “strike many people as being completely empty and ridiculous,” says the political scientist. Two studies in contrast are the 1998 Canadian apology to its indigenous people and the 1999 debate in Australia about whether the government should apologize to its aboriginal population. Official commissions in both countries were convened: The Canadian government issued an apology; in Australia, the commission recommended an apology, but the government declined.

What’s at stake with official apologies? One critically important thing, according to Nobles, is getting the history right. “Many nations have been founded on conquest and dispossession. The question becomes, ‘How do you describe that displacement?’ Do you say it was glorious, justified, inevitable? Or do you describe it as unfortunate, coercive, genocidal? It requires a re-examination of national history and identity.”

In addition to sanctioning historical reinterpretations, apologies send out signals of moral judgment. “Of course, once you offer an apology, you acknowledge the need for some kind of remedy,” she says, adding that the reparation doesn’t always need to be material.

An official apology in the United States — whether to Native Americans or African Americans — is unlikely, she says, because successful apologies depend on grassroots mobilization and swaying public opinion. “In the U.S., the issue of apology and reparations is highly polarized among black and white Americans. One survey reported that over 65 percent of black Americans favor reparations and/or an apology, and the same percentage of whites oppose it. In political terms, it’s a non-starter.”

In Nobles’ universe, however, such statistics are the opposite of non-starters. Rather, they’re a springboard for her to pursue her passion for exploring the political uses of both apologies and history.