Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Race, Language, and Culture: A Note on Identity in Louisiana

I thank historians Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux (Ret.) and Dr. Michael S. Martin of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for evaluating this essay:

I have seen it stated in a few journalistic and social media outlets that, to quote my fellow researcher Joseph Dunn (for whom I have great respect), “From the late 19th century through today, the baseline for identity in Louisiana shifted from language and culture to race and skin color.” This change occurred, he states, because “of heritage language loss, forced assimilation into English, and Americanization.”(1)

I think it is important, however, to note that the idea of ascribing identity to race, or racialization, did not appear from nothingness after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
(2) Indeed, there is strong evidence that race — not merely language and culture — served as a vital element in fixing identity decades before Napoleon sold Louisiana to the fledgling United States.

The Code Noir (1724)
Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

In 1724, for example, French administrators in Louisiana adopted a set of regulations aimed at governing race relations in the colony. The very name of that decree invoked race: the Code Noir — the Black Code. France created the Code Noir, to quote Louisiana’s highly accessible state encyclopedia, “to regulate the interaction of European-descended (blancs) and African-descended people (noirs) in colonial Louisiana.”(3) Though it contained some measures pertaining to Jews in the colony, the Code Noir (again, as its name implies) primarily concerned persons of African heritage: it regulated “nègres,” both “libres” and “esclaves,” as well as their treatment by enslavers and by the colonial apparatus in general.

Furthermore, it identified those it regulated based not on their language or culture, but on their race and, beyond that, their status as free or enslaved. For example, the code outlawed (on paper if not in practice) marriage between Whites and persons of African descent, even if the latter were not enslaved but “gens de couleur libre” (free persons of color). It precluded enslaved Blacks from selling anything without the written permission of their enslavers. It forbade Blacks enslaved by different masters from gathering in large groups, even for weddings, on pain of being flogged or even branded. And so on.(4)

After Louisiana became Spanish territory in 1762 its new rulers adopted (eventually) their own race-based regulations, the Sistema de Castas, or Caste System. Tulane historian Lawrence N. Powell describes this intricate system as “a taxonomic arrangement that often verged on the absurd” because of its tortuous attempt to categorize race. As Powell observes about New Spain in general in The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans:
A mixed-race population was forever spilling into the interstitial spaces, and obliging the Spanish bureaucrats charged with keeping track of it all — the census takers and notaries on the one hand, and thousands of parish priests on the other, all keeping racially distinct baptismal and marriage records — to devise, on the fly, cognitive labels for new people. . . . One Mexican scholar counted forty-six different mixed-blood types in the sources he consulted. Only ten categories were fundamental, however, and these were all spinoffs of three main divisions: Spaniards, Indians, and Negroes. . . . One scholar has dubbed the system a ‘pigmentocracy’ [my italics]. 

Those racial categories and sub-categories used by the Spanish included Mestizos, Castizos, Mulatos, Moriscos, Lobos, and Coyotes, as well as the overtly quantitative Cuarterones and Quinterones, among other gradations based on racial descent and admixture.

Las castas (The Castes).
Anonymous, 18th century,
Museo Nacional del Virreinato,
Tepotzotlán, Mexico.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Although the Spanish did not import the full Sistema in all its complexity to Louisiana, Powell nonetheless remarks the essence of the classificatory regime did get transferred to Louisiana, implanted by the priests and notaries tasked with verifying individual genealogies and entering their verdicts in registry books segregated by race” [my italics]. Racial gradations in Louisiana during the Spanish colonial period included Negro, Mulato, Cuarterón (Quadroon), Grifo (or Grifa), Pardo (“Colored”), and Moreno (“Black”).(5)

What evolved over time from this byzantine race-based system of identity was a simpler, more fundamental three-tiered racial order placing enslaved Blacks on the bottom; free, often multiracial (part-White) persons in the middle; and free Whites on top. This framework would in time be replaced by an even more fundamental binary system that viewed persons as either “Black” or “White,” with no “in-between” multiracial gradations. The binary system arose, strangely enough, even as some continued to refer to a trichotomy made up of “Blancs,” “Noirs” and “Mulâtres.” (Indeed, as late as 1920 the U.S. Census Bureau classified respondents as Black, White, or Mulatto, among other racial/ethnic classes.)(6)

As illustrated by the Code Noir under French rule and the Sistema de Castas under the Spanish, racialization existed in Louisiana long before the coming of American rule. This is important because, as noted, it has been argued that “heritage language loss, forced assimilation into English, and Americanization” shifted “the baseline for identity in Louisiana . . . from language and culture to race and skin color. . . .” Clearly, the issue is not so clear-cut. If a shift occurred, it may have been one of degree, with Americans continuing to use race as the major criterion for identity, albeit perhaps on a larger or more stringent scale than the colonial French and Spanish (though the Spanish, as shown, were fairly stringent when it came to racial identity).(7)

Powell's The Accidental City (2012)

Still, something must account for the presence of race-based identity in early colonial Louisiana. That something, I suggest, was an influence that existed on a vastly larger scale than Louisiana (even as colonial Louisiana covered about a third of the North American continent). I refer to novel if benighted theories of race — part quasi-religious, part pseudo-scientific — that permeated western thought at the time. These theories stemmed from interactions between Europeans and persons of African descent, both in the New World and on the African continent. In short, by the 18th century race as identity was a notion known across the western world, and not at all unique to Louisiana. This explains how Paris and Madrid were able to impose ideas about racial identity not merely on Louisiana, but on colonies throughout their far-flung empires.

This, however, does not mean language and culture exerted no impact on identity. As they do today, language and culture, like race, ethnicity, religion, and other attributes, served as boundaries, markers, or shibboleths used to inform inclusion as well as exclusion (which, for good or bad, is how group identity works). Yet the rise to dominance of racial identity in colonial Louisiana occurred well before the coming of the American period and its pervasive Americanizing agent, the English language.


(1) Joseph Dunn, “A Primer on the Evolution of Creole Identity in Louisiana,” Louisiana Perspectives [blog], 13 February 2018, https://louisianaperspectives.wordpress.com/2018/02/13/a-primer-on-the-evolution-of-creole-identity-in-louisiana/, accessed 1 May 2024. See also Howard Blount (with Joseph Dunn), “The Acadian Exile, Louisiana Creoles, and the Rise of Cajun Branding,” Backroad Planet, 6 December 2018, https://backroadplanet.com/acadian-exile-louisiana-creoles-cajun-branding/, accessed 4 May 2024; Jules Bentley, “Blanc like Me: Cajuns vs. Whiteness,” Antigravity, July 2019, https://antigravitymagazine.com/feature/blanc-like-me-cajuns-vs-whiteness/, accessed 4 May 2024.

(2) Merriam-Webster defines racialization as "the act of giving a racial character to someone or something: the process of categorizing, marginalizing, or regarding according to race. . . . : an act or instance of racializing." "Racialization," Merriam-Webster.com, n.d., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racialization, accessed 8 May 2024.

(3) Michael T. Pasquier, “Code Noir of Louisiana,” 64 Parishes [Louisiana state encyclopedia], 6 January 2011, https://64parishes.org/entry/code-noir-of-louisiana, accessed 2 May 2024.

(4) “Louisiana’s Code Noir (1724),” English translation, 64 Parishes, n.d. [October 2013], https://64parishes.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/LouisianaCodeNoirTranslation.pdf, accessed 2 May 2024, see Secs. I, VI, XIII, XV. For the Code in the original French see: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b86086055/f1.item

(5) Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), 293, 294, 295; Benjamin Groth, “‘Sacred Legalities’: The Indelible and Interconnected Relationship between Baptism and Race in Spanish New Orleans,” Louisiana History 64 (Winter 2023): 48, 56.

(6) Powell, Accidental City, 293; Paul Schor, “The Disappearance of the ‘Mulatto’ as the End of Inquiry into the Composition of the Black Population of the United States,” Counting Americans: How the US Census Classified the Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017), abstract, July 2017, https://academic.oup.com/book/25441/chapter-abstract/192603358?redirectedFrom=fulltext, accessed 2 May 2024.

(7) For more on Americanization, see my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003).


Recent works touching on racialization in colonial Louisiana, as recommended by historian Michael S. Martin:

Dewulf, Jeroen. From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians (Lafayette: UL Press, 2017).

Groth, Benjamin. “‘Sacred Legalities’: The Indelible and Interconnected Relationship between Baptism and Race in Spanish New Orleans,” Louisiana History 64 (Winter 2023): 45–82.

Johnson, Jessica Marie. Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

Johnson, Rashauna. Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Milne, George. Natchez Country: Indians, Colonists, and the Landscapes of Race in French Louisiana (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

Wegmann, Andrew N. An American Color: Race and Identity in New Orleans and the Atlantic World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022).

White, Sophie. Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

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