The Concept of Race

Race is a social construct that divides people into groups that may have little or no common physical traits, often on the basis of cultural background. The term has also been used to categorize other human groups, such as linguistic or religious ones (the “Arab race,” “Latin race”) and even political, national, or ethnic ones that have no apparent physical distinctions at all (the “Jewish race”).

The word race was coined in the 17th century and developed early on as an ideology of difference associated with different European populations during the exploration and colonization of the New World. It became the basis of a social hierarchy that accounted for differences in treatment and access to power, wealth and opportunity and was at the core of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. It continued to be a powerful force in the United States after the abolition of slavery, motivating segregation, discrimination and unequal access to education and employment opportunities.

While the concept of race has no scientific validity, and anthropologists and geneticists have found no clear or measurable biological differences among human groups, it remains a vital part of our perception of ourselves and the world around us. The United States Census Bureau defines a person’s race as one of five categories: white, black or African American, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. People who have mixed-race heritage can select more than one of the race options on the census questionnaire.

The terms race and racial are often confused, although they are distinct. The term race is a largely arbitrary classification of modern humans, based on such features as skin color and facial shape, while the word racial refers to an intangible and historical grouping that may include such qualities as shared culture or ancestry.

In the past, scientists have attempted to classify humans into distinct races, usually based on physical characteristics such as hair and eye color. However, research has shown that these groups do not correspond to clearly defined geographic areas and that most of the variation in human genetics occurs within rather than between conventional racial groups.

Despite the lack of a rationale for a system of racial categories, the notion of race has been influential in many societies, providing a framework for discrimination and social stratification. While there is no universally accepted definition of race, the concepts continues to have real-world implications and carries great significance in legal and policy contexts, such as equal employment, housing, and educational opportunities.

The following resources address a variety of subjects related to race through scholarship, literature, and other materials. These resources are available through the Seton Hall University Libraries catalog, databases and websites accessible via the library homepage. Precise searches can be honed using subject headings, names of authors such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, and movements such as Negritude and Philosophy of Race. The library also maintains a Research Guide on Race that is updated regularly.