Revisiting the Concept of Race

The word race refers to the categorization of humans based on physical or social qualities into groups generally viewed as distinct within a given society. For example, the term was used in reference to people who were enslaved because of their skin color and a belief that they were natural inferiors. Despite the fact that it has never been proven that clear biological differences exist, we continue to use the concept of race to divide humanity and that division has serious consequences in the form of economic inequality and social oppression.

Historically, there has been a strong link between racial classification and power. As a result, societies that were defined as being of one race often discriminated against members of another. Moreover, even in the case of non-discriminatory policies, racial classification can be exploited to create an atmosphere of inequality and to justify policies that are not designed to protect the welfare and rights of all people.

A person’s racial identity has a profound impact on his or her life, and how it is perceived by others. Consequently, it is vitally important to examine how the concept of race is conceived and applied in all areas of our lives, including social-science research, public-policy initiatives and cultural representations.

One of the key issues in this regard is whether or not it makes sense to classify human beings into distinct races at all. In the past, some scientists decided on a limited number of variants or races, such as the Caucasian race living in Europe and North Africa, the Mongoloid race residing in Asia, Australia and East Africa, and the Negroid race inhabiting the Americas and Africa south of the Sahara. Others preferred two, three or more.

More recently, genetic studies have shown that people are more closely related to each other than they are to people of different “races.” For example, Europeans and Asians share a large percentage of their genome. In addition, the vast majority of genetic variation exists within, not between, population groups.

In light of these facts, it may be appropriate to revise the standards for collecting racial and ethnic data. Currently, the Census Bureau collects information on a person’s race and ethnicity in accordance with Office of Management and Budget directive No. 15. The directive defines five minimum racial and ethnic categories: White, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Some Other Race.

However, if the Federal government were to revise these standards, there is no guarantee that the number of racial and ethnic categories would remain the same. It is quite possible that the number of groups could increase, with new categories being created to accommodate the diversity in the country. Alternatively, there is the possibility that the question could be removed entirely and individuals would simply be asked about their country of origin. This option is not without risk, however, as it could have serious consequences for the accuracy and completeness of the data.