The term race is used to categorize humans based on physical or social qualities into groups generally viewed as distinct within a given society. It began to emerge in the 17th century and grew in importance as a social mechanism of division and stratification during European exploration and colonization of the Americas.
Some people have argued that clear biological differences among human populations no longer exist and that the concept of race is therefore obsolete. However, sociologists and other racial theorists argue that although race is not a biological category, it is nevertheless a very real force in our society. It is a system of beliefs and ideas that shapes the way that people see the world, that influences how people behave and interact with one another, and that has a profound impact on the lives of individuals and groups.
There is also a growing recognition that the concept of racial categories has important social and cultural significance. In fact, many if not most societies use some version of the idea of race in some way to define their population, distinguish themselves from other populations, and organize their own social life. The debate on whether or not the United States should continue to collect racial data is often linked to this fundamental question of what race means in our society and how it should be defined.
Historically, the notion of race was based primarily on visible physical traits such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. These characteristics were thought to be inherited from one’s parents and to distinguish members of different races. However, because there is a great deal of overlap in these traits and because genetic variation between the members of any traditionally recognized racial group is as large or larger than that between two members of the same “race,” most scientists now believe that clear distinctions between humans are not biologically valid.
Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a classification that is based on a person’s culture or the origin of their family. It is possible to have more than one ethnicity but most people are classified into a single racial group. For example, Tiger Woods is typically described as a black American even though he is one-half Chinese and one-quarter Thai.
The traditional understanding of the difference between race and ethnicity has had major repercussions for public policy. For example, some have argued that since people with mixed races share the same ethnic background (that is, they are American), they should be placed in a single racial category. Others, including the National Council for La Raza, have argued that these types of decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.
It is not possible to reach a consensus on what race and ethnicity mean in our society and how they should be defined for Federal purposes. Nonetheless, it is clear that the continuing collection of racial data is necessary for monitoring and analyzing evolving differences and trends in the population.