Race & Ethnicity of U.S. Citizens

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  • 00:00 Race vs. Ethnicity
  • 00:55 Racial Breakdown of…
  • 1:55 Ethnic Breakdown of…
  • 2:44 Effect of Race on…
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

You hear the words 'race' and 'ethnicity' thrown around quite a bit in the media, but do you ever pause to think about what those words mean? This lesson sheds some light on the meaning of those concepts.

Race vs. Ethnicity

These days, it's quite difficult to watch or read the news without hearing discussion of race and ethnicity in American life. In many ways, these two words are very much at the center of American culture, influencing everything from music to fashion and education to healthcare policy. Sometimes they are even used interchangeably, which adds significantly to the confusion.

So what do race and ethnicity actually mean? In short, the definitions are actually pretty easy. Race is a term used to group people by broad physical features, most notably skin color, but also hair texture and color among other physical traits. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is based on cultural and familial groupings of people such as language, customs, and ancestry. In short, race is biological and ethnicity is social. However, in America, it's actually much more complex than that.

Racial Breakdown of the United States

If you were to look at a random group of 100 Americans whom were representative of the rest of the country, a majority of them, fully 72 people, would be white. Black people would make up the next largest group, with 13 people. Nine people would be mixed-race individuals, 5 would be Asian, and 1 person would represent American Indians and Pacific Islanders. These are the races that the U.S. Census Bureau categorizes people into, as well as the terms used by the Census Bureau to describe them.

Chances are that as many of you heard that, you thought I was over-simplifying things. The first time I saw this, my first reaction was 'What about Hispanic people?' However, that's a category based on language; it is not biological. As a result, you would have a number of people in each of those groups, especially the white and black groups, who'd be more comfortable speaking Spanish at home than English. In any event, those are the breakdowns based solely on race.

Ethnic Breakdown of the United States

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a much wider field of possibilities. In fact, it would be very difficult to do the above exercise with regards to ethnicity because there are so many ethnicities represented in even the average person! You could be Italian American, Ethiopian American, Chinese American, Native American, or Native Hawaiian, or any combination thereof!

In many ways, since ethnicity is how we decide to establish ourselves within our families and communities, it is a much bigger deal on a daily basis to many people than race. After all, someone whose dad is Irish American and mom is Italian American is likely to focus on the differences between Irish and Italian food more than on the fact that both families are legally white. However, there is one ethnicity that the Census does keep track of and that's Hispanic Americans.

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