The Concept of Race and Its Importance

The idea of distinct human races dates back to the 18th century, when scientists noticed that people from different parts of the world look differently. Scientists in that era agreed that there were three main races of mankind: Caucasians living in Europe, North Africa, and West Asia; Mongoloid types living in East Asia and Australia; and Negroid types living in southern Africa.

Later, scientists started to question whether race really existed. For instance, they observed that some individuals had the same disease rates as others who did not and wondered if these differences were related to their genes or their environment. But they could not prove that these differences were due to genetics or environment and thus dismissed the concept of race.

Today, anthropologists agree that the distinction between “races” is less meaningful than it once was. People from widely separated geographical regions have interbred, making racial definitions increasingly blurred. In addition, many of the categories that we use to categorize a person’s race are social constructs. In fact, the term race itself is often used as a synonym for ethnicity or national origin, and it may be used to describe a group that has similar cultural characteristics and ancestral backgrounds.

Even so, the idea of race remains very important to some people. For example, majorities of blacks and a small share of whites across all age groups say that their racial background is extremely or very important to the way they think about themselves. And a good many of them say that being a member of their racial group has helped them get ahead in life.

Some experts argue that racial classifications are not just biological but also reflect specific attitudes and beliefs. They point to a pattern of history in which racial distinctions were established in support of European colonialism, slavery, apartheid, and other destructive policies that are now considered racist. Others argue that despite the ugliness of these past policies, we must continue to acknowledge and confront racism in all its forms.

In fact, if the United States does not address persistent and harmful racial differences in income, education, employment, victimization by violence, and electoral politics, it will fail to live up to its constitutional values of equality and opportunity for all citizens.

In the meantime, many experts have taken up the challenge of educating people about racial issues and providing information that can be used to combat discrimination in all its forms. For more information, please see our fact sheet on Understanding Racism and this Frequently Asked Questions page about race and health. We also encourage you to contact the Census Bureau’s Office of Civil Rights.