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Definitions of Race and Ethnicity in the United States

April 5, 2021
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WRITTEN BY Brittany Whitley, Jill Barnas

Race and ethnicity are distinct social constructs that are typically based on physical (race, skin color) features and cultural (ethnicity) characteristics, including national origin and ancestry. While federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color and national origin, these terms are often used interchangeably and rarely defined.

The most widely understood definition of race and ethnicity was developed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and used in the U.S. Census. Because categorizing race and ethnicity is subjective and loosely defined in statute, there is ambiguity as to whether or not certain practices (e.g., hair discrimination) constitute discrimination based on race or ethnicity.

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