The Legacy of Race in America

Race is a social construct that divides people into categories based on shared physical traits. Its legacy has shaped the world in profound and inequitable ways, causing many groups to experience disproportionate rates of poverty, lack of access to education and health care, environmental injustices, criminalization, and other forms of discrimination. It has also influenced the definition of American culture and values.

Although the term “race” existed long before the 1500s, it took on new meanings with the advent of European colonization. The emergence of the term coincided with the development of two other key terms: white and slave. As the concept of “race” evolved alongside these others, it became a central component of the system that came to define the United States.

In the 17th century, a belief system known as the European Enlightenment emerged that emphasized secular reasoning and scientific study in contrast to faith-based understandings of the world and its inhabitants. The term “race” was a key concept in this new approach to the world, defining distinct categories of human beings based on their physical appearance and characteristics.

Scientists have never agreed on how many distinct races there are of humans, which physical features should be used to identify each one, or what these differences mean biologically. In addition, researchers have had difficulty separating people with overlapping sets of traits that are grouped together as “races.” Nevertheless, many scientists still use the word to describe people who share similar genetics and other characteristics.

Most Americans agree that race is a social construct and not a biological designation. Yet, the Census Bureau continues to collect racial data from its respondents, which are self-reported. This information is important to understand the effects of racism and other social inequalities.

In our survey, we asked adults whether they had ever been criticized or treated differently because of their racial background. About six-in-ten blacks with at least some college education say they have experienced this. And about three-in-ten Hispanics and Asians say they have as well.

While racial discrimination is still a problem in the United States, public policies that promote diversity can help reduce these inequalities. But these policies are often misunderstood and misused. It is essential to understand how they work, and why they may not be effective in reducing racism and other forms of discrimination.

Some experts believe that we need to separate race from ethnicity in order to address racism and other social problems. Others argue that a clear distinction between these two concepts is not possible, because people’s cultures and histories are deeply intertwined. Consequently, many surveys that include both race and ethnicity have switched to using a combination of self-report and observer-classification (some are still observer-classified). We will discuss the implications of this switch in future issues. Until then, the terminology we use here will be “race” and “ethnicity.” Statistical tables in this issue are based on self-reported race and ethnicity data collected in the 2010 Census.