The Importance of Race in American Life


The word race refers to the social categorization of humans based on physical or social qualities into groups generally viewed as distinct within a society. The modern meaning of race dates back to the 17th century, but it was used earlier in a number of different ways to describe peoples based on phenotype traits, such as skin color and hair texture, or groupings of continents with similar characteristics, such as African, European, and Asian.

Today, scientists do not consider race to have any inherent biological validity. For example, if researchers compare genomes among people from across the globe, they find no genetic variants that occur only in members of one race but not another. In addition, racial groups often share more similarities than differences. Nevertheless, racial categories and definitions continue to be used as the foundation for racism, the belief that certain groups of humans are inferior to others and must be subjugated.

Although racial categories are not biological, they remain important in American life because of the legacy of historic and ongoing discrimination. These societal impacts of race and racism have left lasting effects that persist even after the passage of time, creating disparities in virtually every area of society. They have led to unequal access to economic opportunities, educational and career attainment, health outcomes, housing, and much more. Moreover, they contribute to persistent, deep-rooted inequalities that are resistant to change, such as those that were perpetuated by slavery more than 150 years after it was abolished.

Americans of all racial backgrounds often have very different experiences with the ways that racial identities play out in their lives. Black Americans, for instance, are more likely than whites, Hispanics, and Asians to say that their race has hurt their ability to get ahead in their careers, and they have less positive views of the current state of racial relations and racial inequality in America.

In the United States, 2.4 percent of the population reported more than one race on their census form in 2010, which included five suggested racial categories: white, black or African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, and native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Of these, most — some 32 million people — identified themselves as being both white and some other race, with the largest groups reporting being white and either Asian or native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Other common combinations include white and Hispanic or Latino, and Asian and native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. The Census Bureau uses this information to produce the national and international demographic data it reports on. It is also used in vital statistics, and in many public sector programs such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Hispanic Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey. All of these data are available to the public. The Census Bureau does not identify individuals, however, nor do any of its analyses of racial and ethnic data include any identifying information.