The concept of “race” has always been controversial, given ugly associations with slavery, the eugenics movement, and racism. Yet “race” and “racial identity” remain important fundamental aspects of daily life for many Americans and people in other racially diverse societies. In the United States, our understanding of race and how to measure race have changed over the years, reflecting changes brought by immigration, intermarriage, and changing social attitudes. And as racial intermarriage continues to increase, racial group boundaries will increasingly blur, further challenging the meaning of race and racial identity for more and more Americans. These trends have important implications for how the government and other organizations collect and use data on race that are used to help enforce equal opportunity laws and other programs.
During a PRB Discuss Online, Sharon Lee, research professor of sociology at the University of Victoria, British Columbia , answered participants’ questions about the controversial issues of race and racial identity, and how they are changing in the United States.
Jan. 14, 2010 1 PM EST
Transcript of Questions and Answers
Martin Plaut: I am a South African with a white (ish) skin. My family has lived in Africa for more than 100 years. Am I an African?
Sharon Lee: Hi Martin—Given your family’s long history in South Africa, it’s reasonable that you (and others, probably) would consider you an African. Of course, “African” can refer to your nationality (that is, a citizen or national of an African country) or “race”. In terms of “race”, because the majority of people from Africa do not have “whiteish” skin, some people may not see you as “African” because they are thinking of “African race”.
Zacharie Tsala Dimbuene: What’s my race? I am a Black! but I am really a Black. Some people are White. The snow is White. Are really White people like the “snow”? Others are Yellow, as science thought me. But are they really “Yellow”? Scientist have sometimes no courage to establish the real foundation of the “race” steorotypes around the world. They follow political orientation which unsuitable for the World’s understanding. These stereotypes allow “Whites” to continue to dictate that they are superior to others. I think that social science will bring much comprehension to the differences around the world if it can establish the erroneous foundations of these stereotypes. Strictly speaking, these stereotypes allow managers, teachers, politicians to base their judgements (often false) on such stereotypes. I am sure that such discussions are no longer instructive in this 21st century.
Sharon Lee: Hi Zacharie—Your comments refer to many issues, including what “science” has to say about “race”. The consensus among social scientists today is that “race” is best understood as a “social construction”, that is, the definition and measurement of “race” is mainly shaped by history, political, social, cultural, and other factors. This also implies that the meaning and measurement of “race” is dynamic—a point well illustrated by changes in racial categories in the U.S. Census.
Ed Viera, Jr.: I am a Latin American blend of White, Black, and American Indian and the “racism” I’ve experienced had more to do with social class than skin color. Why do African-Americans continue to believe and often behave as if they have a monopoly on slavery and no one else has suffered under the White slavemasters as much as they have? Most of the African slaves ended up in my father’s country (Brazil) and their treatment was much more brutal when compared to the US.
Sharon Lee: Hi Ed—You are an excellent example of how racial identity has become more complex and challenging because of multiple origins. In many countries, including, I believe, Brazil, there is a noticeable relationship between skin color and social class (that is, those with lighter skin color tend to be better off, and often times, political and cultural elites tend to be lighter in skin color). Some researchers have also reported that people with darker skin color in these places are perceived by others as lighter colored if they are of higher social class.
Izumi Mori: 1) Which years were the categories “Hispanic” and “Asian” (besides black and white) included in the U.S. Census? 2) Why is Hispanic treated as a special category, as either Hispanic or Non-Hispanic, besides other major racial categories such as black and white? Is it because Hispanic is considered to often overlap with other racial categories?
Sharon Lee: Hi Izumi—1) A question on “Spanish/Hispanic” was first included in the 1980 census, although a sample of households were asked about their Hispanic origin in the 1970 census. “Asian” as a specific racial label was first included in the 1990 census, together with Pacific Islander (the banner read “Asian or Pacific Islander”), and specific groups such as Chinese, Japanese, etc. were listed under the banner. In earlier censuses, for example, the 1970 and 1980 censuses, several groups were listed, including Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc. 2) The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is the federal agency responsible for issuing federal standards on classification of federal data on race and ethnicity. According to OMB’s directives, “race” and “Hispanic ethnicity” are separate concepts and people of Hispanic origin can be any race.
Robert Prentiss: It seems there is no seamless definition of “race” or “ethnicity” applicable to all the different types of government bodies in the U.S. Census may have on set of definitions, HUD another, and so on down through states,counties,cities, towns. What are the prospects of having a single set of standard of categories acceptable in every jurisdiction? Is anything being done like this? If so, who is doing it?
Sharon Lee: Hi Robert—As indicated in my answer to the previous question, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sets the standards for the classification of federal data on race and ethnicity. In its revisions to the standards issued in July 1997, OMB stated that the new standards were to be used in the 2000 census, and that other federal agencies should adopt them as soon as possible, but no later than January 1, 2003. Non-federal agencies may not follow OMB’s standards, preferring to use whatever categories they had been using. This, of course, leads to inconsistencies and confusion (for example, I know that some school districts do not allow children to identify with more than one race, which is different from the census).
osunsanmi gbolabo: Am from Yoruba race in WEST ARICA NIGERIA.A RACE HITORY BASED ON MYTH.WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN RACE AND MYTHOLOGY.
Sharon Lee: Hi Osunsanmi—I have no expertise in the history of Yoruba people in Nigeria. However, throughout history, many peoples and cultures have created belief systems about their origins, including beliefs about their “race”.
Fadi Kamel: Race is a category or group where certain people can fall into for identification. There are many variables to create a race such as population, religion, ethnicity, and genetic. What is your clear answer of a specific variable that create a race?
Sharon Lee: Hi Fadi—The answer to your question is in your question. As I’d mentioned in my response to another question, social scientists today view race as a social construction, so any feature (skin color, eye color, hair texture or color, shape of nose or ear, etc.) can be used to define a “race”. In the U.S., skin color has been the key physical characteristic that has been used to separate the population into “races”.
Kelly Leibfried: My ancestry is from both Ireland and Germany. Is there a differentiation between different European countries by race?
Sharon Lee: Hi Kelly—Probably not, although some people may use the term “race” very loosely (for example, the “Germanic race” or “Anglosaxon race”). In the U.S. context, people with mainly European ancestors are usually considered part of the large “non-Hispanic White” population.
Juanita Tamayo Lott: Happy New Year, Sharon, In Matt Snipp’s and my recent work, we illustrate how shifts in the size, composition and distribution of racial and Hispanic origin populations between the 1970 and 2000 censuses have been affected not only by changes in the meaning of basic concepts over time and space but also by changes in statistical methods (Journal of Official Statistics, Vol. 25, No 1, 2009, pp-99-124). Acknowledging the reality of multiracial populations and the multiple and fluid identities of individuals, what is the policy relevance of racial and ethnic categories in a 21st century federal statistical system? Thanks, Juanita
Sharon Lee: Happy New Year to you, too, Juanita. Yes, indeed, many factors have contributed to changes in the relative size and composition of the U.S. population by race and Hispanic origin. These and other factors can be expected to continue to affect the racial and Hispanic populations in the future. As you know, federal standards for racial and ethnic classifications apply to the collection of data that are then used to implement and monitor many federal programs, including those aimed at redressing racial bias. As long as these programs remain and are seen as necessary, the need for racial and ethnic data will also remain. However, past experience suggests that federal standards for the classification of racial and ethnic categories is likely to continue to change.
Diego Iturralde: In a country as racially polarised as South Africa was, where the legacy of the apartheid regime still prevails, do you think it is relevant to target social interventions or to track social phenomena by race, or should other factors be prioritised for social intervention? eg. Income, access to health insurance, etc
Sharon Lee: Hi Diego—This is an important question that has also been raised in the U.S., where some have suggested that instead of using “race”, why not use socioeconomic conditions (for example, income) to target interventions (for example, in college admissions). Where race and socioeconomic status overlap, substituting income for race may achieve the same desired outcome, and avoid the controversies surrounding the use of race as the basis for social intervention. However, if race is shown to continue to affect a person or group’s opportunities in society, then it may be necessary to continue to use race to track such disparities and as a basis for social policy.
Starita Smith: I have heard that in Canada nationality is regarded as more salient than race. Please compare Canada and the U.S. and explain why the different emphases would make a difference in the way people perceive other human beings.
Sharon Lee: Hi Starita—The Canadian federal statistical agencies have mostly avoided using the word “race” in collecting data on its population. Instead, Statistics Canada uses the term “visible minorities” to refer to groups that in the U.S. are usually considered “races” (for example, Asian Indians, Chinese, etc.). This does not necessarily mean that people in Canada do not think about race and look at one another in terms of racial identities. Studies have shown that “visible minority” status is associated with labor force and income disparities. There are other differences between Canada and the U.S., for example, a history of slavery in the U.S. but not in Canada, a large black or African American population in the U.S. but not in Canada, that contribute to differences in the role and importance of race in each country.
Dr. Anima Sharma: Dear Lee, It is really a very pertinent topic of discussion in the contemporary context. On the one hand we talk about globalization and the concepts like global village, at the same time the emergence and activation of the hardcore racial groups and their violent activities raises several questions. Though, these people are handful only but the every life is important, which becomes their victim. I think the reasons provoking their anger should be addressed amicably. Can you suggest any framework to deal with this problem peacefully without hurting the feelings of any of the groups?
Sharon Lee: Hi Anima—Conflict based on perceived racial and ethnic differences is a major challenge, in the past as well as today. There are too many examples of such racially motivated violence. That this remains an issue today suggests that the reasons for this type of violence are many and complex, eluding efforts by many over the years to promote peace among different peoples. It may be helpful to borrow a theme from the environmentalism movement: think globally (the world contains different peoples with different interests but we share the same needs for food, space, security, etc.), act locally (reach out to one’s neighbors and promote acceptance and inclusiveness in our local communities).
Barry Edmonston: Racial and ethnic identities have changed a lot in the last century in the U.S. In 1900, for example, Italians would have been identified as a separate ethnic group. Some even referred to Italians as a race. Now, the situation has changed dramatically and few Americans would label “Italians” as a distinct ethnic group. Do you have a crystal ball prediction for the next century? What do think may be the biggest changes in ethnic and racial identification in the U.S. over the next 100 years?
Sharon Lee: Hi Barry—I wish I have a crystal ball for looking into the future! Since I don’t, I’ll try and answer your question by looking back and seeing how the past may suggest some possible future trends. First, one trend is clear—our understanding of race and racial identities will continue to evolve. Second, your example of Italians is instructive: a group that was considered by some to be a separate race distinct from other white/European groups is now part of the general white population. Racial boundaries are therefore not insurmountable. Will this happen for some groups that are seen as distinct races today, for example, Asians such as Japanese, or for Hispanics? Maybe, especially if intermarriage between these groups and non-Hispanic whites continue. It is possible that the meaning of “white” race will change and expand to include increasing numbers of people who have white and other racial origins. Third, immigration may introduce and/or increase the size of some groups (for example, people from the Middle East or West Asia), and OMB may add more racial categories. Finally, and this is counter to the third trend, if racial boundaries are so blurred that they are no longer meaningful, then perhaps there will be no further need for racial and ethnic data, and therefore, standards for such classifications.
J Kishore: Dear Sharon Lee, Similar to race in India caste is an issue of great debate. But data on health is not available when we talk about race and caste. Majority does not want to talk about it because it goes against their interest. Please elaborate on how to increase funding of such studies and how to collaborate at the international level.
Sharon Lee: Hi J Kishore—I’m not familiar with the situation in India. Perhaps you can do some checking into who and what kind of research has been done in India on caste differences.
Aruna Bhattacharya: Hi, I am an Anthropologist and I am from India. I am a faculty at Indian Institute of Public Health. The concept of ‘race’ intrigues me even though I am taught about racial classification etc. But going beyond racial classification and in terms of theoretical knowledge how should we go about understanding ‘race’ in today’s world when we dont want to breed hierarchy in this world (sounds cliched, though). May be the word ‘race’ would have its connotation but its also a way of knowing one’s roots if not anything else.
Sharon Lee: Hi Aruna—In an earlier response, I’d referred to how social scientists view “race” as a social construction. In this sense, there’s no uniform unchanging definition of “race” or “races”. Your suggestion of perhaps replacing “race” with an understanding of one’s roots or ancestry is interesting.
Zachary Smith: A black person who lives in the U.S. and may have no tangible ties to Africa is said to be an African American, however a white person who was born in Africa, but is a citizen of the U.S. is referred to as white or just American when they are an African American individual. What can be done to correct these incorrect assumptions and references to individuals ethnic background?
Sharon Lee: Hi Zachary—The terms you refer to come about through long and complex processes of negotiation among many interest groups and government agencies. I had described the role of the Office of Management and Budget in setting standards and terms to refer to “races” in the United States in my response to another question. Often times, how the average person uses these terms can be incorrect, but these “errors” reflect the difficulties surrounding race and racial identity in the U.S.
Adrijana Milat: I have lived in Wales all of my life, my mother is Welsh, however my father and all of his family are Croatian. What race does this make me?
Sharon Lee: Hi Adrijana—According to current federal standards on racial classifications, your European origins means that you are “white”.
Moctezuma: Why do “intellectuals” that write about Race still reinforce oppressive terms such as Hispanic? What limitations are encountered by homogenizing people into racial categories and neglecting the heterogeneity of ethnic groups within a racial category?
Sharon Lee: Hi Moctezuma—Most researchers and others recognize that broad racial and ethnic categories are not very useful when we want to understand specific groups, for example, Cuban Americans. However, sometimes, there may be no choice (for example, lack of data) or sometimes, for expediency, organizations may use these broad categories, or organizations may elect to use these broad categories for political reasons (that is, to have larger numbers).
Mary Kent: Sharon, In the 2000 Census, Americans were able to identify with more than one race, but only a small percentage did so. Is there evidence that this percentage is increasing? Are Americans becoming more accepting of multiracial identities?
Sharon Lee: Hi Mary—yes, in the 2000 census, about 2 percent of the population were recorded as more than one race. As you know, researchers suggest that this is an under-estimation of the multiracial population because there were efforts to discourage the reporting of more than one race by some advocacy groups, and because the 2000 census was the first census to allow more than one race reporting, some people may not know of the change. There is some evidence of an increase since the 2000 census (mostly from survey data, which are different from the census). It’s well-known that the context affects how people report their race. In terms of whether Americans are more accepting of multiracial identities, I would say “probably yes”, based on mass media reports and of course, the example of President Obama.
Ellen Townsend: A friend of mine has been living in the US for many years but is a citizen of Kazakhstan. I would say that her race is white judging by her and her family’s pale complexion. When I asked her about her race she responded that she was jewish. Do some countries consider “Jewish” as a race? Does the United States?
Sharon Lee: Hi Ellen—No, in the U.S., “Jewish” is not considered a race by federal standards on racial classifications. Most Jewish people, if they are of mainly European descent, would be considered “white”. In some countries, the association of Jewish origins with “race” may still be present, given historical usage of the term (for example, the Nazis certainly considered Jews a distinct “race”).
Jill: Why does the U.S. Census Bureau collect data on ancestry, and how reliable are the results? How are ancestry data used in relation to data on race/ethnicity?
Sharon Lee: Hi Jill—the ancestry question is on the old long form census sent to a sample of households, unlike the race and Hispanic questions that are asked of everyone and are on the short form census. Ancestry data are used to track the ethnic roots of the population, and the Census Bureau also use ancestry data to impute race and Hispanic origin if these are missing. Federal agencies do no usually use ancestry data for progam implementation or monitoring. Researchers may use ancestry data for research purposes, for example, I collaborated with Sonya Tafoya in a recent paper that examined the relationship between people’s reported race, Hispanic origin, and ancestry.
Dan Muchler: Would you say a blonde haired blue eyed German and a Red haired blue eyed Irish man are of the same race?
Sharon Lee: Hi Dan—Most people would say “yes”, and according to U.S. federal standards on racial classifications, they would be the same race (“white”). Of course, if there were another society where hair color is the determinant of “race”, these two individuals would be considered different “races”.
Kim: Hi Martin, I am Canadian and used to work with three different people who migrated from South Africa. They were all white skinned and each said they were South African.
Sharon Lee: Hi Kim—Thanks for your comment on Martin’s question. I think when these people say they’re “South African”, they’re not referring to their “race” but their national origin. Given that their skin color is white, they would not be considered “visible minorities” in Canada (the Canadian term for what would be considered “racial minorities” in the U.S.).
Refilwe Sello: When we teach the younger generation about origins of race , will that lead to race hate , as we talk about slavery and intermarriage.
Sharon Lee: Hi Refilwe—I hope not, because I believe that education is the most effective instrument to teach about race so that society may be free of racism. It is not easy to talk and teach about race, because of slavery, racial oppression, anger, guilt, etc. but avoiding discussion about race is unlikely to make racism disappear.
J.C. King: Amidst the current state of ethnic and racial advantages of minorities that have existed in the U.S. for over 20 years now, why do double standards persist which can penalize one who is not of color? Are we just prolonging the racial tension that exists in America by allowing mediocrity to dictate standards of advancement for the sake of being multicultural in the workplace; in essence being “politically correct”? Or, should we focus on promoting individual empowerment and accountability for ones own actions which is not being projected by our nation’s current leadership? This “sense of entitlement” is spreading like a disease all across our land and if it continues to go unchecked, our Federal Government (by distraction) will eliminate all existing freedoms of the citizens by implimenting their so called “social progressivism” onto this great, diverse, multicultural, nation in which I love so dearly. Can you please comment on this “agenda” behind the “agenda”. After all, it’s not about the right or the left, it’s about up or down if you know what I mean.
Sharon Lee: Hi J.C.—There are different opinions and controversies over the role of race in government and society. Most people would share the goal of a race-blind or color-blind society.
Refilwe Sello: How does race and bahavior corelate ? Can someone be black and act white or
be white and act black ?
Sharon Lee: Hi Refilwe—There is no scientific basis for a relationship between “race” and behavior.
Refilwe Sello: In job application forms , why is is still necessary to be asked if you are black/african american/white/asian/hispanic etc ? what is the relevance of that?and why is black and african/american categorised together , I am african from Botswana , even though my great great parents were pale in complexion from South Africa , but I do not feel comfortable to pick black/african american , bacause I think africans and different from african/americans?
Sharon Lee: Hi Refilwe—Job application (or college admission) forms often ask about the applicant’s race because of federal laws on equal employment opportunities. Such data are used by employers to show that they do not discriminate. On your second question—as we have more and more immigrants from different parts of the world, many find the U.S. racial categories confusing and not too applicable for them. You are a good example. Current standards of racial classifications may change in response.
Brad Whittaker: How can science prove that “Scientific Racism” can prove that some races are superior to others? Wouldnt the scientist’s race come before his work and use his own judgement before the Scientific proof?
Sharon Lee: Hi Brad—It would be curious to examine in detail what evidence and scientific methods were used to “prove” that races differ in innate abilities. Most of the older studies have been shown to be invalid and unreliable. Science insists on objectivity, so if it’s really scientific research, the researcher’s personal characteristics should have no role in the research.
Lauren Bachle: I have been raised in a community that is all very much “the same” racially. I’m studying to be a teacher and I’m concerned that I won’t be able to relate to my students and their lives if I work in a very diverse school. In what way should I approach the subject of race so that no one gets offended?
Sharon Lee: Hi Lauren—As I mentioned in an earlier response, I believe that education is the key to promoting a racially inclusive society. Teaching about race is not easy. You don’t have to try and relate to your students’ lives because they will all be different in individual ways. From my experience, I find that it’s helpful to acknowledge from the beginning that talking and learning about race is not comfortable, but discomfort means you’re really learning instead of avoiding uncomfortable issues. I also tell my students that they must respect one another’s opinions, allow each person to speak, and realize that we all share the goal of a racially inclusive society.
Frank spears: By blurring the color line are you not just trying to destroy the basic family unit. Brazil is a good example. Look what a mess the nation is.
Sharon Lee: Hi Frank—I don’t think the idea of blurred racial lines necessarily destroys families. Blurred racial lines suggest that it’s increasingly harder for people to say with certainty what their “race” may be. Research on interracial families in the U.S. show that many of these families consist of parents with higher education and incomes, thereby helping to ensure that their children will have better opportunities.
Brandy Singleton: I may have the opportunity to work for the Census Bureau in the near future. I was told that I scored a 96% on the Census test. The next hiring cycle will start again where I am located in Indiana in May this year. I have not been given details of the assignment but I believe I would be going door to door collecting key information about those residing there. Your information on the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was helpful to know.
Sharon Lee: Hi Brandy—Thank you. Good luck with your work for the Census Bureau.
Jill: Why is Hispanic the only category for ethnicity on US Census forms? And why are there several Asian “sub-races” listed as options (i.e. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc.), but no sub-races for other groups?
Sharon Lee: Hi Jill—As indicated in some of my reponses to others, OMB sets the federal standards on race and ethnicity, and the latter is defined as Hispanic/non-Hispanic. Many social scientists have questioned this conception of ethnicity. About the Asian “sub-races”—what finally gets on the census is decided by the Congress, not the Census Bureau. Congressional decisions can be expected to reflect political and other interests, not necessarily statistical or scientific.
Roderic Beaujot: Hi Sharon Lee, It would be useful to know more about how various countries deal with this question. In Canada, as you observe, we use the concepts of “visible minority” which includes about 12 categories starting with “white” and ending with “other – specify”. For ethnicity, we get people to write in their response after giving some examples (these examples include “Canadian”). Then for the Aboriginal Population, we have a separate question which includes some responses that people can check or write in.
In my view, an important asset of the Canadian approach is to allow respondents to check of, or write in, more than one category. While this is complex to analyze, I feel that it better represents the underlying reality.
Sharon Lee: Hi Rod—Yes, Canada and Statistics Canada were ahead of the U.S. and U.S. Census Bureau in their approach to collecting data on the population’s ethnic origins. Respondents could report more than one ethnic origin beginning with the 1981 Canadian census, while it was only in the 2000 U.S. census that this was allowed in the U.S. One brief comment on categories listed on the “visible minorities” question in the Canadian census: the “white” category is used to separate “whites” from the visible minority population which refers to people who are of “non-white or non-Aboriginal” origin.
For more information see:
Sharon M. Lee and Barry Edmonston, “New Marriages, New Families: U.S. Racial and Hispanic Intermarriage,” Population Bulletin (2005).
Eric Zuehlke, Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance for a More Integrated America (2009).