Race is a concept used to describe groups of people who share physical characteristics, such as skin color and facial features. They may also have a common heritage and culture.
The meaning of race has changed over time as societal shifts have shaped the terminology and classification of groups, and as more people become aware of racial inequities. For example, in the 1960s, the refrain “Black is beautiful” ignited a sociopolitical revolution. Likewise, American music artists have celebrated their ethnic backgrounds.
In this cultural moment, the concepts of race and ethnicity have never been so important to grasp. Despite the many different terms and definitions associated with them, they can still be challenging to understand.
Historically, races were defined by physical traits that distinguished members of a group from others, such as hair texture, facial features, and skin color. But genetic studies have shown that human physical variations do not fit a traditional “racial” model. Instead, humans vary in only a small percentage of their genes.
Although scientists have argued for and against identifying distinct groups of humans by these characteristics, most experts agree that there is no consensus on what makes up a race or how to identify them. And although most people continue to use the term race, they recognize that it is a social construct rather than a scientific concept.
As a result, some researchers and health care providers have suggested that the Federal government should reconsider its standards for identifying race and ethnicity. This is because data sets that identify race and ethnicity are a mixture of self-identification by respondents and the perceptions of observers.
This may create a number of problems for researchers and users of Federal data sets containing racial and ethnic data. For instance, many persons of mixed racial and ethnic origins disagree with the instruction that they should use a single category as their race to reflect their recognition in their community. They object to the instruction because they believe it reflects a misrepresentation of their identity. They suggest that if a multiracial person is required to choose between their parents’ race, it is demeaning.
There are also questions about how to aggregate detailed racial and ethnic data into the broad categories of Directive No. 15. Some people say that the categories should be reassessed to reflect the Nation’s diversity. They suggest that population size and geographic distribution of groups should be considered as criteria in the final decision on the categories.
A broader group of racial and ethnic categories would allow researchers to examine trends in specific groups more closely than is currently possible with the current collection standards. For example, a study could compare the health and economic status of people in each racial category.
In addition, a broader category of racial and ethnic groups would allow researchers to analyze differences in the types of diseases that affect certain groups more than others. For example, a study found that Asian and Pacific Islanders were more likely to have cancer than those in the other two racial categories.