Classifying People by Race
JOAN FERRANTE AND
PRINCE BROWN, JR.
On a variety of official documents, citizens are requested to state their race or ethnicity. In census tabulations, they are asked to respond, indeed, to confess to their race, to examine their skin color, the color of their blood, their type of hair, and the breadth of their nostrils to allocate themselves to racial groups.
-- Yehudi O. Webster, The Racialization of America ( 1993:44)
Most people in the United States equate race with physical features. In their minds, the term race refers to a group of people who possess certain distinctive and conspicuous physical traits. Racial categories are assumed to represent "natural, physical divisions among humans that are hereditary, reflected in morphology, and roughly but correctly captured by terms like Black, White, and Asian for Negroid, Caucasoid, and Mongoloid" ( Haney López 1994:6). This three-category classification scheme has many shortcomings, which immediately become evident when we imagine using it to classify the more than 5.6 billion people in the world. If we attempted this task, we would soon learn that three categories are not enough--especially when we consider that for the 1990 U.S. Census, respondents wrote in the names of 300 alleged races and 75 combinations of multiracial ancestry ( Morganthau 1995).
The refusal on the part of the government of the United States to acknowledge the obvious conclusion that their categories only very poorly capture the range of human features is driven by long-standing historical and social reasons. "The idea that there exist three races, and that these are 'Caucasoid', 'Negroid', and 'Mongoloid', is rooted in the European imagination of the Middle Ages, which encompassed only Europe, Africa, and the Near East. The peoples of the American continents, the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania--living outside the imagination of Europe--are excluded from the three major races for social and political reasons, not for scientific ones. Nevertheless, the history of science has long been the history of failed efforts to justify these social beliefs" ( Haney López 1994:13-14).
Adding more categories, however, would not ease the task of classifying the world's billions of people because racial classification rests on the fallacy that