Race is a socially constructed category of identification, and it’s not accurate to say that people can be assigned to a particular race simply by looking at them. It is, however, a powerful way to sort and classify the world’s people.
The term “race” is the result of a combination of many factors, including skin color, facial shape and other features, ancestry and historical affiliation. It is also influenced by a person’s family, social circles and the way they live their lives. During the 19th century, people with European heritage, Amerindian heritage and African heritage were classified as different races.
These racial categories have shaped people’s perceptions of each other and their experiences of discrimination, whether it is the repression of Black people by white supremacists or the lack of support for anti-racist policies from the White community. In the United States, race is one of the five categories that people are asked to self-identify on a census form or questionnaire.
The federal government collects information on people’s racial identities in order to understand their lives and serve them. Researchers, advocacy groups and policymakers use data on race to find out if there are disparities in health, education and housing opportunities. For example, if there is a large number of people with Native American heritage, it may be important to ensure that services are available for them.
Historically, anthropologists have used the language of race to describe physical differences in human beings. They discovered that, as scientists looked more closely at physical traits, they became less distinct and more varied. Anthropologists later developed a theory that each racial group had an internal, invisible element of innate quality, called the “racial essence,” that was linked to its physical traits.
But in the 21st century, biomedical and genomic research has demonstrated that there is no such thing as biologically separate, discrete human races. Scientists are now re-conceptualizing the concept of race as a cultural construct rather than a scientific one.
In addition, studies using the frameworks of critical race theory and racial formation theory explore implications of this new understanding of race as a socially constructed category, particularly how it is reflected in laws, policing strategies, media portrayals, advertising campaigns and more. As a result, many scholars believe that the word race should be replaced with other categories such as ethnicity or national origin. Currently, the only way to collect ethnicity or national origin data is for individuals to report it on a census form or questionnaire. The current decennial long form census has a question asking people to identify their ethnicity and a question on racial identity that asks about people’s ancestry and history.