What Is Race and How Does It Affect Us?

While it is easy to get distracted by the current political debate about “race”, it is important for us to take a step back and remember that race is a social construct. It is a category created by human beings to classify themselves and others on the basis of visible physical characteristics that have no scientific or genetic validity. Society uses this classification to impose and sustain systems of privilege, disenfranchisement, and oppression.

Although there is no biological or genetic evidence of distinct human races, many scientists have used the term ‘race’ to define populations within the species that differ from each other with respect to phenotypic traits such as skin color. The term has also been used to refer to subspecies that have sharp boundaries between them and are presumed to be distinct evolutionary lineages.

While ‘race’ is defined primarily by appearance, it is also used to distinguish individuals who share similar cultural, social, and political institutions such as schools, churches, and neighborhoods. In addition, many people use the term ‘race’ to describe themselves and others in terms of shared ancestry and origin.

The term ‘race’ is commonly used to categorize individuals in the United States by their responses on the Race section of a census or survey. Respondents may report one of the following options for race: White, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino (including Puerto Rican), Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or Some Other Race. Respondents may also choose to indicate that they do not identify with any race group.

Despite the lack of a genetic or biological definition of race, there is substantial evidence that social factors impact outcomes such as health and income in the U.S. Using different measures of race can produce dramatically different results when looking at these outcomes. This is because different measures capture different aspects of the underlying phenomenon being studied.

For example, a study of income inequality using different measures of race can show that racial disparities are caused by a wide range of factors including housing policies, educational achievement, and the ability to negotiate job offers. The use of different measures of race can also highlight how the complexities of social and economic issues are intertwined.

It is essential to acknowledge the existence of racism and that it can be found everywhere in our society. It is not possible to address any of our most pressing problems — poverty, disenfranchisement, injustice, inequality, and violence — without also addressing the structural causes that are based on the concept of race.

To address these problems, a critical first step is to re-examine how we talk about race and to adopt a more accurate and nuanced language that will allow us to see the full range of interlocking issues at work. This can begin with a basic understanding of the difference between race and ethnicity. While both are categories that can be socially constructed, ethnicity allows individuals to select multiple ancestry groups to identify with and can include both geographic and historical ties to those ancestry groups.