Understanding Race: The Evolution of the Meaning of Race in American Law and the Impact of DNA Technology on Its Meaning in the Future

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Race has played a decisive role in nearly all aspects of American society, yet its meaning in various contexts remains unclear. Throughout history, individuals have struggled to define "race" as it pertains to science, society, and the law in particular. (1) Although race became a part of the English language in the mid-sixteenth century, it did not take on its modern definition until the early-nineteenth century. (2) Scientific, social, and political interpretations of race have gone through an evolutionary process as well. (3) After over two-hundred years of trying to understand its meaning, "[t]he word 'race' defies precise definition in American law." (4) Countless competing theories exist as to the definition and meaning of race, and the inability for one to earn universal support poses a significant problem to the American legal system. (5) Despite the fact that numerous statutes have been enacted to prohibit racial discrimination throughout all aspects of American society, "the law has provided no consistent definition of race and no logical way to distinguish members of different races from one another." (6)

It has been argued that "race" was first used as a tool to classify individuals during the age of colonial exploration; (7) however, this use was maintained for centuries. Today, classifications based on race are still present in America, and have been found to be permissible in some instances, such as when used to remedy instances of past discrimination. (8) With the predominant role race continues to play in American society, to ensure that all are treated fairly under the law, it is imperative that a single definition of race is applied universally to all Americans. It is foreseeable that advances in science, particularly in DNA testing, will allow for a uniform method of determining one's race. (9)

This note will discuss the current lack of a settled definition of race in American Law, and the potential role DNA technology can play in remedying the problems associated with it. Part II of this Note will explore the concept of race by examining various definitions of race and how they have evolved into the modern definition. This section will additionally look at the historical understanding of the meaning of race, and the recent divergence from traditional thought. Part III of this Note will analyze the role of race throughout American legal history. This portion of the Note will address historical notions of race in America, the origin of the need to define race, and the treatment of race by the legislature and the courts. Part IV of this Note will discuss current DNA technology and the potential impact it may have of on modern concepts of race, particularly with regard to the law. It is foreseeable that advances in DNA technology will allow scientists to identify and classify individuals through an analysis of their genetic information.


Over the course of the past three-hundred years, common definitions and theories on race have gone through an evolutionary process. This evolution of "race" can be seen in a variety of ways, one of which is a simple analysis of dictionary entries for the word "race" over the course of time. (10) Historians, anthropologists, and social scientists alike all have re-examined their understanding of the meaning of race, as both biological and social theories on race have developed over time. (11) Ultimately, a variety of opinions on race have grown to reject theories of race based in biology, and have reconceptualized race as a cultural category or social construct. (12)

A. Race Defined

Part of the difficulty in understanding the meaning of race can be attributed to the various definitions given to the word. The definition of race, as found in dictionaries, has evolved prior to reaching its current general definition. (13) As was argued by the respondent in St. Francis College v. …


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