Race and Ethnicity in the United States

  • History of Immigration and Multiculturalism in the United States
  • Present United States Racial Classification System

When colonists came to the New World, they found a land that did not need “discovering” since it was already occupied. While the first wave of immigrants came from Western Europe, eventually the bulk of people entering North America were from Northern Europe, then Eastern Europe, then Latin America and Asia. And let us not forget the forced immigration of African slaves. Most of these groups underwent a period of disenfranchisement in which they were relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy before they managed (for those who could) to achieve social mobility. Today, our society is multicultural, although the extent to which this multiculturality is embraced varies, and the many manifestations of multiculturalism carry significant political repercussions.

Racial classifications are culture and context-specific. Some countries have no formal racial classification system, while others have 6 racial/ethnic categories, and still, others have over 30. This should serve as a reminder that race is in fact a cultural construction.

Current Day Racial Classification According to the United States Government

The United States Census dictates racial classification in the United States. These classifications have evolved over time, and presently are undergoing change. Currently, there are six forms of classification for the United States, as defined by the United States Census:

  • White/Caucasion
  • Black/African American
  • American Indian/Alaskan Native
  • Asian
  • Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders
  • Some other race

Yes, ‘some other race’ is an actual classification. This should give you a hint as to some of the problems with the system as a whole. Each of these classifications have changed over the course of time, are fraught with their own contradictions, and differ markedly from the lived reality (or how we understand, interpret, and assign race in our day to day lives).

An examination of this list reveals a glaring omission: there is presently no racial category in the United States for Latinos, or Hispanics. Yet, many people who ‘fit’ this category see this category in racial terms, as do people who are outside of this category of people. In the United States, Latino, Latinx, and/or Hispanic Identity is understood by the government as an ethnic category. 

The actual ethnic categories in the United States are not multiple as we experience them, but rather binary with the ethnic options as:

  • Hispanic/Latino/Latinx
  • Non-Hispanic White

This means that technically those who do not identify with a Hispanic/Latino/Latinx culture do not, in fact, have ethnicity in the United States. Of course, we know the lived experience is different. This is just one example of the limitations and inaccuracies of the United States current racial classification system. However, the classification system for race is yet again under review in the United States. As of this edit in 2022, there is no clarification from the United States Census Bureau as to what the racial and ethnic categories will be for the 2030 Census. This should leave you with the following questions:

  • Why is there a disconnection between the lived experience of race and ethnicity in the United States, and the actual government classification of each?
  • How does the changing construction of whiteness shape how we understand race in the twenty-first century?
  • How do public attitudes of exclusion because disconnected from the real history of the United States as a country of immigrants?


This is a great overview of race and ethnicity in the United States and will provide a foundation from which we can have more nuanced discussions in class about some of the contradictions in the current classification system.  This video was taken from the “Sociology Crash Course” series of videos http://thecrashcourse.com and created by Cindy Hager in collaboration with the Alexandria Technical Community College.


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Rothschild's Introduction to Sociology Copyright © by Teal Rothschild is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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