The term race is often used to describe groups of people with a common heritage or physical appearance. In the United States, people are asked to identify their race in censuses and surveys – for example, they may mark “White,” “Black or African American,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” or “Asian” on a form. Race is different from ethnicity, which is a person’s cultural background and history.
Historically, scientists used the word race to describe groups of human beings that differed from one another. For example, anthropologists have used the term to categorize people based on their skin color and other physical traits. Some of these groups were presumed to be distinct enough to evolve into separate species.
However, genetic research in the late 20th century refuted this idea and proved that there is no biological basis for racial categories. Today, most scholars believe that the concept of race is a social construct and that it has no objective reality beyond what people make of it.
Many people with multiracial ancestry have trouble fitting into single racial categories. For example, golfer Tiger Woods was traditionally described as being Black, but his ancestry is half Asian (divided evenly between Chinese and Thai) and one-quarter European. In addition, there is a wide range of phenotypic variation among members of the same family. This is a consequence of the fact that genes do not operate in isolation and are influenced by both environment and lifestyle.
Some social sciences scholars have argued that the concept of race is harmful and contributes to the persistence of racism. They have also pointed out that the legacy of racial categories continues to shape our society in ways that contribute to inequality, including higher levels of poverty (opens in new tab), less access to education and health care, and greater exposure to violence and environmental injustices for some groups over others.
In spite of this, the government is required to collect information on a person’s race because it has a variety of important policy implications. For example, the federal government tracks race to ensure that it is providing services and enforcing antidiscrimination laws effectively. It also uses the data to track trends in racial demographics and to assess the quality of public schools.
The way the Census Bureau defines race has evolved over time. Until recently, people were asked to identify their race according to the categories offered on a Census questionnaire. Now, people are given the option to select more than one racial category to reflect their mixed-race heritage. The Census Bureau explains that it does not “try to define races biologically, anthropologically, or genetically” and that the options are not intended to exclude anyone. The bureau also notes that its racial categories are not the same as those of any other government agency or private organization. Data users should be aware of this distinction. The Bureau offers a glossary to help explain the meaning of its data.