Checking a Box

Below are the categories from the 1900 Census question asking about race and identity

  • White
  • Black
  • Chinese
  • Japanese
  • American Indian

Would you have been properly represented by these choices? The U.S. Census data has been collected since 1790. We know that race is a cultural and social construct because these categories on the census are constantly changing to represent the change in the way the U.S. government views the diversity of people in this country.

If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.

- Former President Lyndon B. Johnson

Social/Cultural Classifications

Social, or Cultural, Classifications is the process of grouping individuals based on different characteristics such as skin color, gender, and class. These groupings have historically served the purpose of creating hierarchies based on attributes that are out of a person’s control. This can still be observed to this day. The goal of social classifications, especially in the context of race, is to keep one group of people in power and in control.


Race is a scientific classification just like genus and species.


Race is not a scientifically valid form of classifying humans beyond Homo sapiens. The “one-drop rule” was a principle that stated a person with any Black ancestry, or had “one drop of Black blood”, was considered Black and was used to further discriminatory practices. This goes against the ideas used prior to the Civil War that stated people with less than one-quarter or one-eighth African ancestry were legally considered white. The definition of race has changed constantly to maintain and benefit the people in power.

Race was invented as a tool to keep some people in a position of power over others.

Social Classifications in the United States

In the early years of the United States, cheap labor was needed for the plantation economies to function. Creating racial groups based on skin color was an effective way of organizing plantation labor, and creating an economically and socially stratified system until the Civil War. This happened first in the agricultural sector, and then in the growing industrial sectors. An example of this was the kidnapping and enslavement of people from Western Africa to perform back-breaking agricultural labor. Another example is the 15,000+ Chinese, Irish, and Mormon immigrants who worked on the transcontinental railroads were paid much less than White workers for the same job. 

The concept and creation of race in the U.S. helped mask the extensive class stratification and structural inequality in the American economic system. Race has been used to exploit and divide the labor force, as well as to hide inequality based on class, national origin, gender, and religion.

This race-based system of social classification became a way of maintaining the political, economic, and social dominance of elite and mainly White, Protestant groups. The dominant elite has wanted to maintain this racial stratification in an age of shifting demographics. This has changed the definition of “whiteness” over time.

The initial definition of “White” was mostly established by Anglo-Saxon colonists during the 17th and 18th centuries. They decided people who did not share the same looks, language, or religion as them were inferior. This meant that even people who would be considered White today, like the Irish or Italian, did not share the same social classifications as they do today. 

Racial classifications have significant social, economic, political, legal, and other consequences. There is data to show that just by being Black or Latino, you will make less money than the average White person. Research shows that in some cases, people do not get jobs based on the sound of their voices, or even names. Denying housing due to a person’s race is outlawed but there is still Racial Steering, or the urging of ethnic groups to live in places based on their identity. While race is not real, it does have real impacts on people’s lives because of a system that was designed to maintain a social hierarchy.