The Concept of Race


A group of people who share similar physical characteristics, such as skin color or facial features, and may also share similar social or cultural identities and ancestral origins. There are many racial groups and people can identify with more than one. Some diseases, such as cancer, are more common among certain racial groups.

For centuries, people have used the concept of race to categorize themselves and others into groups viewed as distinct by their societies. Although today, scientific consensus is that there is no biological basis for race, the concept remains a powerful and important part of how we define ourselves, interact with each other, and perceive and respond to the world around us.

The Census Bureau uses a standard definition of race that does not attempt to define human populations anthropologically or genetically, but rather is intended to reflect the way the United States and other nations have traditionally defined their races. The Census Bureau asks a single question about racial heritage (also known as race/ethnicity) and permits respondents to select more than one response to indicate their racial mix.

When describing an individual, law enforcement officers often use the term “race” to convey the overall physical appearance of a suspect or victim of a crime. This is largely because the goal for most law enforcement officers in apprehending a criminal or violent person is to create an easily discernible description that will facilitate their task. In addition, the FBI has long emphasized that it is easier to make a good judgment about whether a particular individual is likely to be dangerous by relying on the physical appearance of the person rather than through detailed analysis of DNA or other means.

It is important to recognize that there are different stages on the continuum of a person’s journey toward self-acceptance of their racial identity. Personal experiences, family and community relations, education, work and workplaces, the aging process, political events, and even health-related issues can all play a role in someone’s understanding of their own racial identity.

There is substantial research indicating that a person’s experience with racism can result in poorer mental and physical health outcomes. For example, the chronic stress of exposure to racism can lead to high blood pressure, which in turn increases a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke. This disproportionate impact of racial/ethnic minority status on health is the direct consequence of the ongoing legacy of discrimination against these communities.

Exposure to racism is linked to lower socioeconomic status which itself can have negative impacts on a person’s health and wellbeing, especially over the long-term. Developing a strong sense of racial identity, seeking support from friends and community, and talking about past experiences with racism are all strategies that can help people withstand the harmful effects of persistent racism. In addition, utilizing the health care system, which can be a place where anti-racist ideas can be spread and supported, can help to improve health outcomes.