There are at least three typical situations where race/ethnicity/sex are requested on applications:mortgage, health, and employment.

What authority decides that there exists a race called white? I could understand grouping say Irish, Scottish, and British together as a race, or Greek, Italian, and Israeli, but my understanding is that Persian, Greek, Egyptian, and Scottish are all considered to be of race white? I was surprised when Persian friend stated that he was told to list his race as white.

Are there separate laws/statutes for mortgage/health/employment? Do they originate from Congress, or from actual federal departments?

Then what separates ethnicity from race? Are Dominicans black/hispanic/white?

  • In E&W, the Equality Act 2010 states "race" includes colour, nationality, and/or ethnic or national origins.
    – user35069
    Apr 21, 2021 at 12:40
  • "Persian friend stated that he was told to list his race as white". As far as I can tell the decision is almost always up to the person themselves.
    – MSalters
    Apr 22, 2021 at 14:39

2 Answers 2


From Lumen Introduction to Sociology:

Many governments provide legal definitions of race for purposes of census-taking and calculating budgets for governmental programs such as those that promote equal opportunity employment. For instance, in the U.S. Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Census Bureau currently uses race and ethnicity as self-identification data items. In this system, the residents choose the race or races with which they most closely identify and indicate what their ethnic origin is (e.g., Latino).

The racial categories represent a social-political construct for the race or races that respondents consider themselves to be. OMB defines the concept of race as outlined for the U.S. census as not “scientific or anthropological” and takes into account “social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry”, using “appropriate scientific methodologies” that are not “primarily biological or genetic in reference. ” The race categories include both racial and national-origin groups.

Governmental Use of Racial Categories This image illustrates U.S. real median household income per year by race and ethnicity from 1967 to 2008, as compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Race and Law Enforcement

In an attempt to provide general descriptions that may facilitate the job of law enforcement officers seeking to apprehend suspects, the FBI employs the term “race” to summarize the general appearance (skin color, hair texture, eye shape, and other such easily noticed characteristics) of individuals whom they are attempting to apprehend. From the perspective of law enforcement officers, it is generally more important to arrive at a description that will readily suggest the general appearance of an individual than to make a scientifically valid categorization by DNA or other such means. Thus, in addition to assigning a wanted individual to a racial category, such a description will include: height, weight, eye color, scars, and other distinguishing characteristics.

British Police use a classification based on the ethnic background of British society, for example W1 (White-British), M1 (White and black Caribbean), and A1 (Asian-Indian). Some of the characteristics that constitute these groupings are biological and some are learned (cultural or linguistic) traits that are easy to notice.

In many countries, such as France, the state is legally banned from maintaining data based on race, so the police issue wanted notices to the public that include labels like “dark skin complexion. ”

  • Answer led me to find that India actually has "caste" on their mortgage applications.
    – paulj
    Apr 22, 2021 at 12:38

The categories used by the federal government are specified by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in its Statistical Policy Directive 15, "Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity", 62 FR 58782. The directive was last updated in 1997. The standard itself is at the end of that document (bottom of page 58788), and several pages of background and rationale are also included, as well as information about the process by which the standard was developed.

The directive specifies in Section 3 of the standard that it is to be used for essentially all federal and federally sponsored purposes. It might also be used voluntarily by state and local governments or other organizations, to make it easier to correlate with federal data.

The OMB is an executive branch agency, part of the Executive Office of the President (i.e. "the White House"), and this directive seems to have followed the usual federal rulemaking process used when executive branch departments create regulations (overview). In principle this is supposed to happen pursuant to laws passed by Congress, but I wasn't immediately able to tell which laws those were. It might be that some statutes include a general requirement to collect statistics on race and ethnicity in certain situations, and the government infers from this that it has the authority to create standards on how to do so.

Obviously the standards are controversial and many people have questions or concerns about the categories that were chosen. The OMB began a limited review of the standard in September 2016, see 81 FR 67398, and there is a docket with about 1200 public comments they received. I'm not sure whether the review was ever completed (the subsequent change in presidential administration may have had something to do with that) but in any case it does not appear that any revisions were made.

The distinction between ethnicity and race seems to predate the 1997 directive, perhaps coming from the previous version of 1977. The 2016 review notice cites this as "42 FR 1926 May 12, 1977", but I haven't been able to find its text yet (and the date doesn't seem to be consistent with the page number).

I don't think any version of this document makes any statements such as "Dominicans shall identify as X". It is always left to each individual respondent to decide which classification they believe best fits their self-identification.


You must log in to answer this question.

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