In the United States, could a Caucasian identify as an African American without any legal repercussions? It seems that it is currently legal to identify as genders other than your genetic one. Is it legal to do this with race? For example, if there was a scholarship for a particular race could someone not of that race identify as that race, apply for the scholarship, win the scholarship, and be able to collect with protection of the law?

Can't think of a better example at the moment, but just curious how race works according to the law. If we don't know because it has never hit the courts, that's fine.

P.S. This is just curiosity. I am not planning anything.

  • Interesting reading: collegescholarships.org/scholarships/…
    – Patrick87
    Nov 7, 2016 at 19:21
  • You may be interested in the relatively recent case of Rachel Dolezal.
    – phoog
    Nov 7, 2016 at 20:47
  • Interesting. So Rachel Dolezal was referred to as "transracial". I suppose that is the term I am looking for. I wonder when the next big case about this will come up.
    – Cory-G
    Nov 7, 2016 at 23:11
  • Just for fun, consider a white former South African citizen who immigrated to the USA and became US citizen, who could call themselves quite reasonably "African American". Since there is often a category "Black or African American", instead of just "Black", it seems to be assumed that there are non-black, for example white, African Americans.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 15, 2018 at 22:14

2 Answers 2


It is generally though not absolutely illegal to use race as a basis for doing things. A private organization can, however, currently use whatever criteria it wishes, to decide who to give its scholarships to: UNCF has a list of about 25. Then the question is whether a demographic claim could be fraudulent (hence legally actionable). (There is a separate question regarding a school having a role in racially-restricted scholarships because there would be problems if the school gets any federal money or claims tax-except status, or engages in something that might be considered to affect interstate commerce, so let's assume that the flow of money is directly from the organization to the recipient).

There have been a handful of cases where a university faculty member has alleged a certain ethnic connection, which has been questioned, but as far as I know nobody has been fired for claiming an ethnicity that they aren't entitled to. There are two reasons. First, a university can't make race be a criterion for employment, so any putative fraud would not be material. Second, there is generally no objective proof of the falsity of such a claim (except: claiming to be a member of a particular tribe is a provable matter of fact – look on the tribal register).

In the past, when interracial marriage was illegal (and similar laws), it was necessary to legally define races, such as the Virginia Racial Integrity law, but such laws have been ruled unconstitutional and/or repealed. There are no legal standards of "racial purity" whereby a person can claim to be African-American only if [...]. On the contrary, there is increasing recognition that the individual has the sole right to self-identify, though especially for federal purposes one may be faced with limited choices such as those of the EEOC, which ask of the "category with which you primarily identify".


In the United States, "race" is a political construct which is not defined by an Act of Congress or "law", see What are the legal requirements in the United States for being recognized under federal law as "white" or a "white" person?; Is the term "race" defined by Public Law enacted by Congress of the United States. Specifically, the political construct of "race" is based entirely on self-identification and has nothing whatsoever to do with genetics.

United States Census Bureau - About Race

An individual’s response to the race question is based upon self-identification. The Census Bureau does not tell individuals which boxes to mark or what heritage to write in. For the first time in Census 2000, individuals were presented with the option to self-identify with more than one race and this continued with the 2010 Census. People who identify with more than one race may choose to provide multiple races in response to the race question. For example, if a respondent identifies as "Asian" and "White," they may respond to the question on race by checking the appropriate boxes that describe their racial identities and/or writing in these identities on the spaces provided.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .