The Concept of Race and How it Affects Us

Race is a social construct that categorizes humans based on outward physical traits and commonalities of history and culture. It is a system of hierarchical classification that emerged as a justification for European colonization and the enslavement of people from Africa. Since then, it has fueled theories of biological inferiority that have led to atrocities in the medical field including forced sterilization of Black women and the Tuskegee Syphilis study, and shaped the lives of nonwhite people.

In its most benign form, race identifies a small group of human phenotypes and cultural similarities; in its most insidious form, it is used to create and assign value to a hierarchy that defines who deserves respect and who does not. It is not possible to get rid of the concept of race entirely because it has been embedded in our culture for centuries, but we can take steps toward a future where it is not used as a tool of oppression.

Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau collects racial data in accordance with guidelines provided by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Individuals are asked to report their race, and people can choose more than one if they wish to indicate how mixed their ancestry is.

The categories used by the Census Bureau are socially defined, not anthropologically or genetically defined, and people who identify as multiple races are allowed to do so. This blending of cultures and races is a great part of the American experience, and it is something that we should celebrate. However, the idea of separating and labeling people based on their heritage is still prevalent in other countries around the world, despite the fact that we know it is not logical or scientifically sound.

A number of scholars have argued that distinct human races do not exist, and they are joined by a wide variety of scientists who believe that it is impossible to define a scientific definition of race. The most well-known of these scholars is Jared Diamond, whose book “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” has been credited with changing the way that we think about our relationship with the rest of the world.

In the United States, we have an ongoing conversation about how to deal with our past relationships with the idea of race. Many people feel that it is important to talk about the legacy of racism, even if it causes discomfort or pain. But we must also continue to work towards a future where the idea of race is irrelevant and is not an issue in our country.

To do so will require a substantial effort to educate the public, and to work to make sure that there is equity in education, employment, housing, justice and other aspects of daily life for all Americans. It may be tempting to try to eliminate the concept of race by simply not talking about it, but this does not solve the problem because generations of ideas about it continue to circulate and influence our legal and social policies.