In this section, you'll find resources to expand your understanding and knowledge of the related interactivity: a summary of important concepts, an in-depth discussion of select questions, and Teaching Tips for educators.

Humans come in all shapes and sizes. Classifying them into groups is a subjective process, influenced by cultural ideas and political priorities. There are many different, equally valid criteria one can use to sort people into groups:

  • If you change criteria, people fall into different groups. You can't draw any conclusions about those groups beyond what you used to sort people in the first place. Biologically speaking, traits are inherited non-concordantly, which means they are inherited independently, rather than packaged together. If you know one thing about someone, it doesn't necessarily tell you anything else about them, so it doesn't make sense to talk about group race characteristics.

  • Classification is cultural, not scientific. Racial classification has changed over time and it varies from one place to another. Brazil, for example, has many more racial categories than the U.S., and in Haiti, you're white if you have any amount of European ancestry. Even in our country, the criteria are inconsistent from one group to another.

  • There's a lot of overlap between groups. There isn't a single gene, trait, or characteristic that distinguishes all the members of one "race" from all the members of another. Again, this is because categories are socially constructed, so there are inconsistencies in the way different groups are defined.

Is there a correct way to classify?

Following are the U.S. federal government's current definitions for the racial and ethnic groups we used in the sorting activity:

American Indian or Alaskan Native.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community recognition.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Black or African American.
A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Terms such as "Haitian" or "Negro" can be used in addition to "Black or African American."
Hispanic or Latino.
A person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture of origin, regardless of race. The term "Spanish origin" can be used in addition to "Hispanic or Latino."
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.
A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

Most of these categories were introduced in 1977, in response to new civil rights laws designed to remedy discrimination. Look closely at these definitions. Is everybody defined in the same way?

To be categorized as Native American, for example, requires "tribal affiliation or community recognition" - a condition of no other category. The definition for African American includes a reference to "black racial groups" while none of the other categories mention race. In fact, Hispanic or Latino is defined as a "Spanish culture of origin, regardless of race." The category Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander was only introduced in 1996 - previously, it was lumped together with Asians.

What reasons might exist for defining these groups in these seemingly contradictory ways? Are the criteria social or scientific?

Explore the RACE TIMELINE section to see how definitions have changed over time.

What about multiraciality?

In our film, anthropologist Alan Goodman says that we are all mongrels, that humans have been mixing for centuries. According to evolutionary biologists, we're all descended from the original peoples of Africa. Depending on how you look at it, you could say that we're all mixed race or we're all Africans. How do these ideas affect the way you think about yourself?

The 2000 U.S. Census tried to accommodate changing ideas of race by allowing people to check more than one box. However, statisticians who use Census data have a hard time matching this to information collected in previous years.

Multiracialism has the potential to challenge our assumptions about race, but it can also reinforce the wrong ideas. For example, we often say that someone is part white and half Asian or Latino – but which part? What makes somebody part white, and how do we measure that? Geneticists tell us there’s not a single trait that separates one race from another. What are other pitfalls of quantifying race through percentages?

In the past, African Americans were defined by different percentages of African ancestry – at its extreme, the “one-drop rule” declared that persons with any known African ancestry were defined as Black. Today, Native Americans are still defined by “blood quantum” – to be classified as American Indian requires proof of at least some (usually "one quarter" or more) of Indian ancestry. Can you think of any historical reasons why we might classify these two groups in opposite ways – essentially maximizing the number of African Americans and minimizing the number of American Indians?

Explore the HUMAN DIVERSITY section to see human migration over the centuries.

Why don't we just get rid of racial categories?

Although the government's definitions aren't perfect, we need racial classification because our society is still unequal in terms of race. For example, does being white have the same meaning as being Black, Latino, or Native American?

Sociologist Andrew Hacker conducted an experiment in which he asked a group of white college students if they would consider changing their race and living the rest of their lives as Black, and if so, how much compensation they thought was fair for making the change. The amount the students agreed upon was $50 million - $1 million per year for the next 50 years. If all races are the same, why is compensation necessary?

Race is a double-edged sword, but we must overcome centuries of inequality before we can unmake it. As former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once wrote, "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way."

For example, if we didn't track race data, we would never know that schools today are more segregated than they were in 1960. We wouldn't know there's an enormous wealth gap between African Americans and whites. We wouldn't know that Native Americans have the highest rates of diabetes, that one out of every four Latinos lives below the poverty line or that the number of hate crimes against South Asians and Arab Americans has increased exponentially since September 11, 2001.

We all want to live in a society where people are valued for who they are, not what they look like. But pretending that race doesn’t exist or matter is not the same as treating people equally. Without data on different racial groups, how will we know if we're equal? Until race doesn't matter, we can't overlook its consequences.

Explore the WHERE RACE LIVES section to see how race still affects people's life opportunities.

The Resources section of this Web site contains a wealth of information about issues related to race. There you'll find detailed information about books, organizations, film/videos, and other Web sites. For more about this topic, search under "racial classification." You can also read related online articles in the Background Readings section of this site.

  1. Demonstrate the different ways you can sort people into "races" by trying out each of the following criteria with the same group of people:

    Print out the fingerprint types and sort people into groups based on their type.

    TONGUE-CURLING: Who can curl their tongue and who can't?

    HAND CLASPING: Have everybody clasp their hands together. Which thumb is on top? Who is right-thumbed versus left-thumbed?

    SKIN COLOR: Look at the inside of your arm and compare it to others. Who is really darker or lighter?

    Do the groups change as the criteria changes? Can you predict how people will sort out based on other information, or does it seem random? All of these traits are inherited, yet none of them, not even skin color, sort people along "racial lines." What about the Dravidians from southern India - they are very dark-skinned, their facial features resemble Europeans, yet they live in Asia. How should we classify them?

  2. Look at the U.S. government definitions of race listed in the Go Deeper section. Think about where you might classify the following people:

    • Someone from the West Indies
    • Someone from Brazil
    • Someone with Native American ancestry but who does not belong to any tribe
    • An Australian aborigine
    • Japanese Peruvian

    What are some reasons why the government would want to categorize or track information on certain groups and not others? If the categories were created to remedy discrimination, how well do they serve that purpose? What happens if we redefine them?

  3. In the Sorting People activity, the ID cards showed us that government race categories do not necessarily reflect the way people view themselves or their ancestry. Given that there's no objective way to classify people, discuss how you think the government should define racial categories. What definitions best help us remedy inequality?

For complete lesson plans, visit the FOR TEACHERS section of this Web site.


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