The Difference Between Race and Ethnicity

When most people think of race, they probably have the idea of a group of individuals with similar physical traits that distinguish them from others. While this is one way of classifying humans, it’s not the only way. Ethnicity, which describes cultural identification with a specific geographic region, also divides people into groups. The difference between these two concepts is important because the Census Bureau uses them differently for different purposes. This article details how the terms are used, and how they relate to each other.

The modern concept of race emerged in the 17th century, during a time of European Enlightenment philosophy that promoted secular reasoning and scientific study over faith-based religious understandings of the world. It was during this period that writers, anthropologists and philosophers began categorizing the world and human beings anew. Many of the new categories based on physical traits and appearance that became commonplace in the 18th century, including those associated with skin color, were created to justify a social hierarchy of human groups based on differences that could be seen.

While slavery predates the concept of race, it helped popularize the belief that a person’s innate characteristics (such as skin tone) and place of origin were determinative of their social superiority or inferiority to other races. This racial hierarchy served as the basis for America’s early economy, which depended on the exploitation of slave labor. This structure remained even after the Civil War ended slavery, and it continues to shape how we see ourselves in the U.S.

Even though mounting scientific evidence has shown that humans are more similar than they are different, race remains deeply ingrained in our society. Moreover, scientific findings are often ignored or misrepresented to further the agendas of some extreme political groups. As a result, many Americans are confused about what the facts really are when it comes to race.

This is especially true when it comes to the distinction between race and ethnicity. Many people confuse these terms, and believe that if they are of mixed descent, they must report more than one race. The fact is, the Census Bureau does not use self-identification to determine a person’s racial classification. Instead, the Bureau uses the definitions that are based on Federal guidelines, and does not attempt to define race biologically or anthropologically.

The definitions of a person’s race include white, black, Hispanic, and Asian. A person who is of mixed descent can mark more than one race, but the individual will be classified by the largest of the selected options. The Bureau collects racial information for a number of reasons, such as ensuring that Federal policies are appropriate for all racial groups, and monitoring compliance with antidiscrimination laws. It is not, however, a determining factor in eligibility for any Federal program. The question on the Census form that asks about a person’s racial background has changed over the years, and some of the previous categories are no longer relevant or accurate.