Racial identification occurs when individuals consider themselves to be a part of an imagined conglomerate of people who are presumed to share certain physical, cultural, intellectual, and moral traits. This identification can be made for cultural, social, legal, or political purposes, and it involves both self-identification and categorization. Self-identification is the choice individuals make when confronted with racial choices. The options usually offered in the U.S. context are white, black, Asian, and Native American. Categorization refers to the way that people are racially identified by others. Economic analysis shows that racial-identification norms arise from the simultaneous processes of self-identification, which is achieved via within-group altruism, and categorization, which is achieved via between-group altruism. The relative payoffs to social interactions are influenced by and contribute to intergroup differences in wealth and power. It is of no small import that the categories one may racially identify with or be categorized with today are a colonial invention, created to justify the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans (see Allen 1994).
The idea of “race” involves the notion that all of the people in the world can be divided into discrete categories, based on shared physical and cultural traits. A key notion in the idea of race is that not only can inferences be made about people’s moral, intellectual, or social value on the basis of physical characteristics such as skin color or hair texture, but also that these same traits are expected to be passed down to offspring. In the United States, as Ashley Montagu points out in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth (1997), to accept the idea of race is to accept the notion that races are populations of people whose physical differences are innately linked with significant cultural and social differences, and that these innate hierarchical differences can be measured and judged. Thus, when people are asked to identify with one or more racial categories on survey forms, they are really being asked to report where they fall within this colonial hierarchy. And when one categorizes people in this way, one is, in effect, placing them within this same hierarchy.
Although race is an invented categorization scheme, the idea that race is real and important has become hegemonic in the United States, where people have been trained to identify others by race. If people in the United States see someone and don’t know “what they are,” they often get inquisitive or begin to feel uncomfortable. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva points out in “The Essential Social Fact of Race” (1999), race is about “what you are,” while ethnicity is about “where you are from.” Thus to be unable to racially identify others can create confusion about “what they are.”
It may be surprising that, although people seem to view racial categories as fixed and based on fact, these classifications have changed quite a bit over the course of U.S. history. In fact, the racial classifications used by the U.S. Census have changed each time the Census has been carried out. In 1880, the U.S. Census categories were: White, Black, Mulatto, Chinese, and Indian. A decade later, Quadroon, Octoroon, Japanese, Samoan, Other Asian, Other Pacific Islander, and Some Other Race were added, only to be taken out again, along with mulatto, in 1900. Mexican was added temporarily in 1930. After many changes, the Census categories used in 2000 were White; Black, African American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian Indian; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; Korean; Vietnamese; Native Hawaiian; Guamanian or Chamorro; Samoan; Other Asian; Other Pacific Islander; and Some Other Race. In addition, in 2000, people were given the option of checking off as many of these options as they wished, thereby greatly increasing the number of racial choices available to people.
Notably, people were given the opportunity to identify themselves multiracially in 2000 because of a political campaign to allow people more than one choice on Census forms. This is just one of many campaigns that have altered the ways racial classifications are used. There is also a strong movement to dissolve the use of race in public policy altogether. This has resulted in the passage of Proposition 209 in California in 1996 and the adoption of Proposition 2 in Michigan in 2006. Both of these propositions prohibit all state and local government entities from using race, ethnicity, color, gender, or national origin to make decisions about public employment, public education, or government contracting. California also witnessed another movement to remove racial and ethnic identifications from data collection efforts, in the form of Proposition 54, the Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color and National Origin Initiative.
Following the defeat of this proposition in 2003, the American Sociological Association (ASA) issued a statement about the importance of being able to collect data on racial identifications. The ASA also published a statement in 2002 arguing that, although racial categories are socially constructed, it is important to ask people to give their racial self-identification in data collection efforts, insofar as this provides vital information about inequalities in educational, labor market, health care, and other outcomes. In other words, as long as a social meaning is given to race, it is important to know how people identify themselves racially and how this identification affects their prospects for success.
The creation of the Hispanic category was also the result of political campaigns, primarily in the 1960s. Hispanics or Latinos/as are currently the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States. However, according to the regulations used by the U.S. Census, Hispanic is an ethnic, not a racial category. Thus, Hispanics, just like non-Hispanics, are asked to choose between the various racial categories on the Census form. Other data collection efforts, such as those used by some educational institutions in the United States, include Hispanic as an option, although these classification schemes are often designated as racial or ethnic self-identification. Hispanic, in many ways, functions as a racialized category in the United States, insofar as people use physical cues to determine whether or not someone is Hispanic. However, the category Hispanic, like the categories Arab or Middle-Eastern, is a result of a different set of historical processes than those through which the categories White, Black, Asian, and Native American were created. European scholars writing in the seventeenth century generally restricted themselves to these latter four categories in their pseudo-scientific work on the characteristics of the human races.
Despite this tainted history, racial identification cannot be seen solely as an act of dominance, for it can also be an act of resistance. By identifying themselves racially, as opposed to ethnically, some Hispanics may be resisting white privilege and expressing solidarity with other people of color. Indeed, there is evidence that Latinos who experience discrimination are more likely to racially identify as Latino than those who have not experienced discrimination.
Racial identifications are thus social, cultural, political, and legal categories that are the result of particular historical processes, and that continue to be subject to changing ideas about the reality of race. As social categories, they are related to various social outcomes such as educational attainment and wages. As cultural categories, they are imbued with meaning and associated with certain cultural characteristics, such as language, dialect, or musical preferences. As political categories, they can be used to mobilize people behind a common agenda. And as legal categories, they have been used to prevent miscegenation, to enforce segregation, and to maintain racial slavery.
SEE ALSO Formation, Racial; Hierarchy; Identity; Identity, Social; Latino National Political Survey; Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity; Politics, Identity; Race; Racial Classification; Racism; Self-Classification; Self-Identity; Stratification
Allen, Theodore W. 1994. The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control. New York: Verso.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1999. The Essential Social Fact of Race. American Sociological Review 64 (6): 899–906.
Dalmage, Heather. 2000. Tripping on the Color Line: Black-In the two-function model above, White Multiracial Families in a Racially Divided World. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Darity, William, Jr., Patrick L. Mason, and James B. Stewart. 2006. The Economics of Identity: The Origin and Persistence of Racial Norms. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organizations 60 (3): 283–305.
Martín-Alcoff, Linda. 2006. Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Montagu, Ashley. 1997. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. 6th ed. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Sanjek, Roger. 1996. The Enduring Inequalities of Race. In Race, eds. Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Smedley, Audrey. 2007. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a World View. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Tanya Maria Golash-Boza