The word race has been used for centuries to describe differences in human physical traits, such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. However, scientific studies in the late 20th century refuted the notion that biologically distinct racial groups exist. Nonetheless, the social construct of race persists as a powerful force in American society. Race influences decisions about who gets health care, how much to pay for college, where to work and live, whether and when to use force, and whether or not to be friends with someone.
The idea of races in humans developed in the 17th and 18th centuries as a folk theory about differences between peoples brought together in the New World by European exploration, colonization, and slavery. Over time, the concept of race evolved to justify white superiority and to rationalize exploitation, discrimination, and oppression.
Using the term “race” to describe differences in human physical and behavioral characteristics has long been controversial. Today, most scholars in anthropology, history, and genetics accept that the term does not describe biogenetically distinct racial groups and that racial categories are mainly socially constructed. Nevertheless, many researchers continue to study human biology, phenotypic variation, and culture to understand the context of how and why the social category of race exists.
While the scientific community agrees that race is not a biologically valid distinction, some experts in sociology and other fields have argued that we should not abandon the idea of race altogether. They argue that race is a powerful organizing principle that serves important functions, such as linking social identities to experiences of oppression and privilege and providing a framework for understanding and responding to racism.
Many people who have participated in public debates on the question of how to collect and report race data have advocated for keeping the race question on census forms, but changing the way it is asked. For example, some have favored combining the questions on race and ethnicity into one question. Others have favored making the question more specific by asking people to identify their race or ethnicity by country of origin rather than simply a particular geographical area.
There is also a wide range of opinion about how best to categorize people who check more than one box on the race questionnaire. Some have argued that the categories should reflect ancestry, rather than being based solely on skin color; others have opposed this approach because it would not be a universally understood measurement of ancestry and could create confusion.
Similarly, there is wide disagreement about how best to measure and report multiracial individuals. Some have argued that the data should be reported in two or more separate categories, while others have advocated for standard and generally agreed-upon tabulation procedures for collapsed racial responses into the five minimum races identified by OMB and the Census Bureau’s “Some Other Race” category.