What Is Race?

People who compete in races learn a lot about themselves and running. Whether you’re trying to pass the person in front of you, beat your friend, or set a personal record, racing gives you something to work toward and helps you structure your training. Competition also teaches you to be more disciplined and to approach each day with a purpose. It’s easy to get distracted and let yourself slip, but when you are focused on a race, it keeps you from making mistakes that can cost you big. Taking part in a race also teaches you to respect your body and appreciate its abilities.

The term “race” has a complicated history and has different meanings in different contexts. NYU sociologist Ann Morning and University of Milan-Bicocca sociologist Marcello Maneri have been attempting to develop a language for talking about race across borders, where the word can have jarring or even offensive connotations.

Historically, the idea of race was a social construct that arose from perceived physical traits and created a hierarchy that determines who gets treated with dignity and respect, and who has access to resources, such as education and wealth. Today, many of the same biases are still at play. In the United States, for example, families with white parents are on average eight times richer than those with African American parents, and this wealth gap is not entirely explained by differences in income or educational attainment.

The Census Bureau collects data on race in order to ensure that policies serve the needs of all racial groups, and to monitor compliance with antidiscrimination laws. But it’s important to remember that a person’s race is a self-report and not an attempt to classify them biologically or anthropologically. In addition, the Bureau allows respondents to mark more than one race on their questionnaires.

When it comes to describing an individual’s background, culture, or heritage, the terms “ethnic” and “national origin” are more accurate. Ethnicity refers to a shared cultural identity, such as language, food, music, dress, and beliefs related to common ancestry. National origin is more specific to geography and country of origin than “race.”

In terms of a person’s genetic makeup, large-scale DNA studies have shown that there is much more genetic variation within defined racial categories (intra-racially) than between distinct racial categories (inter-racially). In other words, it is not scientifically valid to define humans into discrete evolutionary branches.

The term “race” is used so often that it’s easy to forget how contested and misleading it is. It’s up to all of us to recognize the racial stereotypes and myths that surround this issue, and to take steps to combat them. We must also support the growing number of Americans who are committed to having these conversations in a way that is inclusive and productive. In short, we must dismantle racism if we want to live in a country where everyone has the opportunity to succeed. That starts with recognizing the many ways that race can make life harder for some people.