Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Race / Ethnicity

see also Hispanic / Latino

thanks to

"Each person shares 99.99% of the genetic material of every other human being. In terms of variation, people from the same race can be more different than people from different races."
(Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People. NY: Norton, 2010. 391)

Scholars, demographers, and educators increasingly question classifying humans in terms of "race," instead favoring terms like "ethnic group," "ethnicity," or "cultural group."

Resisting this trend, the USA as a "classless" society has traditionally relied on race as a marker for distinct identities and communities that in some regards serve the same structuring purposes as class.

Rationale for not thinking in terms of "race":

Race divides people by typologies that are falsely divisive and over-simplified. There's only one race—the human race—and diversity in human appearance and behavior exceeds that of whatever "races" we may have learned.

The familiar concept of "the world's races" was articulated primarily by German theorists in the late 1700s. At least in popular culture, the names of these groups became associated with skin color, e.g. Caucasian (white), Mongoloid (yellow), Negroid or Ethiopian (black), and American [Indian] (red).

The science behind such classifications was always questionable, but such exercises in biological anthropology appealed to negative and positive stereotypes.

Identity groups often think visually and symbolically, so the continuing appeal of racial thinking cannot be denied even as it is increasingly undermined by scientific research.

Modern genetics has exposed the superficiality of visible differences by revealing what vastly complex genetic heritages any modern human possesses, especially since improvements in transportation and communications but even before. See Henry Louis Gates, notes on African American genetics.


Ethnic group, ethnic identity, or ethnicity: an ethnic group may be defined less by race, biology, genetics, than by culture, behavior, traditions, circumstances, or especially language.

Race or descent may be and often is a factor in ethnic identity, but as only one component that may be balanced by other factors like class, locale, language.

Ethnic group or ethnicity is now being used in academic discourse more often than race.

Race has biological or genetic connotations; 

Examples of racial minorities:

African American / black / Negro race historically defined by African descent.

American Indians may or may not be included in a tribe or allowed to live on a reservation based on their percentage of Native American parentage. (E. g., my father-in-law was technically capable of membership in the Eastern Cherokees because he was 1/8 Cherokee.)

In contrast, Mexican Americans and Hispanics / Latinos are not identified by a single racial standard but by a shifting cultural mix of language, religion, family structure, geography, etc.

A "Hispanic" may be a Hispanic and be of European descent, of American Indian descent, of African descent, of Asian descent . . . or any combination of these.

Plus European descent doesn't simply mean Spanish but may include German, Irish, Italian, and / or Portuguese, among others.

(2000 census form; 2010 census form)

Overall, ethnicity is a broader, more flexible and inclusive term than race, plus it avoids some sensitive areas of race; e. g., if you discuss the "genetics" or blood-lines that constitute race, inevitably you're talking about sex.

In the case of African America, for instance, discussion of "race" opens not only to genetic inheritance from Africa but genetic inheritance from white slavemasters or slavedrivers who fathered children by black slave women. How much are schoolchildren or their parents ready to talk about that?

Therefore a growing tendency to talk about "ethnic groups" instead of "races."

This trend is also compelled by recent emergence of Hispanic and Latino presence in North America.


Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. NY: Norton, 2010.

389-90 The dark of skin who also happen to be rich, . . . and the light of skin who are beautiful are now well on the way to inclusion. Is this the end of race in America?

391 It was this science of molecular genetics that drove the longest nail into the theory of race.

391 J. Craig Venter, head of Celera Genomics: “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one. We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world.”

391 Each person shares 99.99% of the genetic material of every other human being. In terms of variation, people from the same race can be more different than people from different races.