Race and Ethnicity in the United States


The scientific consensus is that race as a biological concept has no real basis — we are all one human race. However, racial identity remains very real for many people and is important to them. It can be a source of community and a framework for organizing around common experiences of racism. It can also serve as a barrier to progress in some sectors of society.

Historically, races were socially constructed as hierarchal groupings of humans that could be used to distinguish, identify and marginalize some groups based on physical appearance and other factors, such as socioeconomic status, culture and ancestry. These racial categories were based on the assumption that certain biological differences exist between people of different races, and that these biological differences contribute to social and economic disparities.

While the scientific consensus is that biological races don’t exist, some scholars continue to defend a classification of humans into discrete racial categories — and to argue for a hierarchy of these racial groups. Others, particularly social scientists and anthropologists, are dissatisfied with this debate and want to focus on addressing the inequalities that persist as a result of racial discrimination and segregation.

Ethnicity is a more nuanced way to describe an individual’s background, in which a person is labeled based on their specific ancestry and other characteristics. This includes the specific language spoken, cultural practices and religious beliefs, as well as the place of origin or the country where they grew up. Historically, it was common for individuals to be assigned to more than one racial category. For example, President Obama was commonly referred to as Black, although he is actually one-half white, one-quarter Asian (Chinese and Thai), and a quarter Native American.

Today, when someone is asked to report their racial heritage in the United States, they typically select only one of these categories — black, white, Hispanic/Latino or Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. The problem with this is that it creates a false impression that these people are genetically and culturally homogenous, and that it is easy to generalize from them. The truth is that, for the most part, these people are not very similar to each other.

It’s important to distinguish between racial and ethnic identities in order to make sense of how and why social inequalities have emerged in the United States. We can’t adequately address the problems of racism and discrimination if we don’t understand that these differences in demographics, culture and life experience are due to historical structural inequalities rooted in racial ideologies and beliefs.