The Concept of Race in America

The notion of race is an essential part of American culture, and it has been at the center of a wide range of legal and social policies. In the United States, there is no official definition of race; people can choose to identify as white, black, Asian, Native American, Hispanic or Latino (or some combination). However, scholars have a broad range of ideas about how to understand the concept of race, and debates continue over whether it is biologically real, or simply a social construct.

The term “race” was first used in the 1500s, and Europeans brought the idea to America when they settled this country. It was important to them because it gave them a way to organize their economic system, which relied on the exploitation of slaves. It also reinforced the idea that whites were more superior to nonwhites. The concept of race was deeply linked to the development of the concept of slavery and the development of American society.

During the 18th century, philosophers and scientists began to develop competing theories about how humans should be classified by race. Some argued that the distinctions between races were based on a physical difference that could be measured. Others thought that the differences were based on cultural differences. Still others believed that the differences were a result of evolutionary divergence, and some even supported claims that some of these differences might be genetic.

By the early 20th century, it was clear that there were no physical scientific grounds for the concept of race. It was then that a number of scientists began to embrace the idea that human diversity was primarily a social construct.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, anthropologists, geneticists, and other scholars were debating how to define the concept of race. Some of them tried to rely mainly on biology; they called this cladistic race. Others used a more expansive definition of race; they called it populationist. There was another definition of race that focused on sociocultural categories; it is what the U.S. Census Bureau uses.

Today, most scholars agree that discrete racial categories are socially constructed. Many also think that the idea of a monophyletic ancestral group underlying these categories is false. Nevertheless, some scholars are skeptical that there is ever enough genetic evidence for the existence of these categories, and argue for a more minimalist conception of race. Still others think that reproductive isolation during evolution or through modern practices barring miscegenation may have generated a sufficient degree of genetic isolation to justify the use of the concept of race. In any event, the Census Bureau has ruled that it will continue to ask questions about a person’s ancestry as part of the broader question of race. It will continue to include five racial categories: white, black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Asian. The bureau has also added the option for a person to select more than one race.