The Difference Between Race and Ethnicity


Race is the term used to categorize humans into groups based on physical and social characteristics, such as skin color and national affiliations. Sociologists think that race is a social construct, meaning it is not biologically valid and only exists because of the way people perceive it. In the United States and many other nations, laws prohibit ethnic-based discrimination. But despite this, the concept of race still persists in everyday life and is a part of how people are perceived by others.

The word “race” comes from a Latin root that means sort, kind or grade. The first use of the term in English dates to the 16th century and was used for sorting and ranking groups of people, including Europeans free of slavery, Amerindians who had been conquered by colonists and Africans brought in as slave labor.

Today, most scientists believe that there is no scientific basis for the concept of distinct human races. People who look different from one another share a great deal of common genetic variation, and there is no evidence that such groups correspond to the commonly seen racial categories, such as whites and blacks.

Instead, most scientists agree that people are best classified based on their cultural heritage and geographic origin. For example, a person from Spain is considered to be Hispanic, even though that person has a number of other ancestors from other parts of the world. In addition, the majority of people who identify as multiracial are actually biracial, meaning they have at least one parent with full-blooded black or full-blooded Hispanic ancestry.

Although it is not based on any scientific evidence, the idea of race has profoundly shaped human society. It has helped to justify segregation, the exploitation of enslaved people, and the denial of economic opportunity to members of some minority groups. And it is a factor that continues to contribute to the inequality in housing, education and health care, as well as exposure to crime, environmental injustices and other problems that plague many communities of color.

To better understand the difference between race and ethnicity, it is helpful to consider how these concepts were developed historically and how they are used in modern society. Race divides the population into groups based on physical appearance and social factors, while ethnicity is determined by nationality, regional culture, ancestry and language. A person may be assigned more than one race, but they are usually only considered to have one ethnicity. For example, a person who has one white and one African ancestor would be designated as white by the Bureau of Vital Records but would be designated as black by the state law that uses the “one-drop rule” to determine race (meaning that someone must have at least one drop of black blood to be deemed black). The same is true for people with two black parents and no other ancestors. This would be designated as multiracial in most surveys. In the past, these people might have been called m├ętis or Creole.