"Race" (a concept and social action) appears to have been accepted by "the state" (the repressive and administrative function) in the United States as a self-evident fact in the state's law, regulation and administration.

To what extent was race important in the day to day actions of the state in the United States? Both in discriminating between races, and in asserting that race existed as a human category?

Were there present in the United States common "sciences" of race, or any other clear and shared cultural explanatory systems, of why and how race existed at all and how it worked?

Edit by the OP:

(so that future edits and answers include the following details that made me ask this in the first place)

I like the new form of the question (edited above by @SamuelRussell who has summed up very well what I has asked initially: maybe he will do the same for the text I am adding here), but, although I cannot claim any credit for it anymore, I would like to see answers relating more to what @PieterGeerkens' comment calls the modern era, even to the contemporary one, in relation to reasons/causes of the general use/significance of "racial" terms - and not just in the context where rights are guaranteed free of racial distinctions, but also where such distinctions are strongly made, as it can be seen in the Wikipedia article Race and ethnicity in the United States Census . As a non-American that never lived in the US I am fascinated (with "mixed feelings" that I want to un-mix) by the fact that racial distinctions are taken for granted. For example, I read that

Race and ethnicity in the United States Census, defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the United States Census Bureau, are self-identification data items in which residents choose the race or races with which they most closely identify...

The data are self-identificatory, but people are offered a choice in racial terms. How is that historically possible? How was that arrived at and how is it perpetuated?

Wikipedia articles give a lot of details about such terms but the details can be confusing.

Race and ethnicity in the United States says

The United States Supreme Court unanimously held that "race" is not limited to Census designations on the "race question" but extends to all ethnicities, and thus can include Jewish and Arab as well as Polish or Italian or Irish, etc.[6] In fact, the Census asks an "Ancestry Question" which covers the broader notion of ethnicity initially in the 2000 Census long form and now in the American Community Survey.

Hispanic and Latino Americans says

"Origin" can be viewed as the ancestry, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person's parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States. People who identify as Spanish, Hispanic or Latino may be of any race

But what is the race then? If I learn Spanish, move to Spain and then to US - while I'm of Romanian "ancestry" (meaning nothing else that I'm born in Romania, I also have that citizenship and speak the language) now living in France - can I declare myself there as Latino or Hispanic, given that (like many other people of many other "ancestry" - European, Turkish, Arab or Jewish) I even "look like one"? "Looking Hispanic" doesn't mean anything, I know: I could have been born in Romania from an African father or mother (students of many origins in Bucharest), or from a Tartar one (old minority close to the Black Sea), and I would have looked "African" or "Asian". But if "looks don't matter", what is the justification of even using a term of "Black" or "White" as a race? Is it just the "ancestry"? How can that be proved? It's just a cultural declarative self-identification?

It may well be that "race" is determined by a specific need to use the word (a Wittgensteinian definition of a word's meaning): is the necessity to use such terms political or scientific? Is it the practical necessity (which one?) that upholds the concepts or are the concepts so important in themselves as to structure the discourse?

This is rather complex and confusing, as conventional-linguistic use is dictated by political decision too, so that words can take a different meaning outside American English - for example the European Union cuts it short (Wikipedia article Race):

According to European Council:

The European Union rejects theories which attempt to determine the existence of separate human races.

— Directive 2000/43/EC

So, how can one talk of something that simply isn't there? Why are "ancestry questions" required? Is the diversity of terminology triggered by the diversity of American institutions (with different goals), and is all this helping the perpetuation of such terms (that have a historical "racist" origin doubled by outdated/dubious scientific taxonomy).

The problem with the Wikipedia articles is that they also take for granted terms that I find at least partially meaningless.

For example, a simple phrase like

The United States is a racially diverse country. The growth of the Hispanic population through immigration and high birth rates is noted as a partial factor for the US' population gains in the last quarter-century. The 2000 census revealed that Native Americans had reached their highest documented population

In order to even say that the country is racially "diverse" one has to already judge racially upon the people. The growth of the "Hispanic" population is calculable because people are oriented to declare themself as such or have been simply put in that category by the authorities. As for the "Native American", is that also a choice? CAn one chose not to be Native American? Can one be acknowledged as such based on its own free will? - And after all: what has all this to do with "race"?

I am not expecting answers to all these sub-questions, only that an answer takes into account the perspective defined by these.

It may well be that my edit will impose the closing of this question, but at least I have made clear the context of the question. Feel free to edit/shorten it, but try to tackle the main aspects that I have tried to put forward.

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    The Voting Rights Act still revolves around it, but I'm not sure this is in scope at history - isn't asking about current legislation more topical for Law.SE or Politics.SE? – Semaphore Dec 19 '18 at 16:28
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    Since you seem unsure, I'll tell you a good rule of thumb: If your question in both the title and the body (the sentence that ends in a question mark) is in the present tense, its probably not History. – T.E.D. Dec 19 '18 at 17:56
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    @cipricus - I'm sorry, terribly sorry. I used "its probably not History" there as shorthand for "Its probably not on-topic on this site." Philisophical discussions about the meaning of that word really aren't what I was getting at. I'm just trying to advise a poster as to what kinds of questions are likely to get closed by users as "off-topic" on this website. I could be wrong (often am), but you had expressed confusion as to what the boundary was, so I thought I'd lend my expertise as a longtime user of this site for what is generally safe, vs. what is likely to get closed. – T.E.D. Dec 19 '18 at 18:13
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    There's a free edit to bring this on topic, if you don't like it, reversion ought to be easy. – Samuel Russell Dec 19 '18 at 22:57
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    With @SamuelRussell 's edits this is starting to take good shape. I would ask that the scope be narrowed a bit further, either in terms of era or geography, as the original sin of the republic, race-based chattel slavery, and it's post Civil War evolution through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, mid-20th Century Civil Rights and finally the modern era clearly describes a similar evolution of what an appropriate answer would be, and varies between those states north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 20 '18 at 2:16

Question: How present is/was in the US legislation the concept of “race” and why?

Very very present.

The first line of the first piece of legislation passed by the Continental Congress July 4th 1776, the Declaration of Independence is partially about race.

Declaration of Independence of the United States We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Slavery was the big unanswered dispute which the founding fathers of the United States left for the next generation to solve. Slave issues formed a shadow over much of United States legislation for the first 100 years of the republic. Southern slave states formed a power block in the Senate where they could block most legislation which they deemed threatened the institution of slavery. The dispute over slavery ultimately lead to the United States Civil War (primary cause at the minimum). Post Civil War US legislation was used to try to secure voting rights and other constitutional rights for former slaves.

Race was also written into the United States Constitution initially to maximize southern representation in Congress by counting slaves as 3/5th of a person.

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Slaves represented a vast minority in some southern states and a majority in others. The south was keen to gain representation for them while still not acknowledging them as people. The Northern founding fathers demonstrated the absurdity of the Southern argument by requesting voting representation in congress for chairs and other pieces of furniture given up to that point the South wanted slaves considered as property. Ultimately the 3/5th compromise was reached.

After the Civil war in 1865 Constitutional amendments were added to try to protect the rights of former slaves in the south. To secure for them voting rights and constitutional rights by making these federal responsibilities too. This worked for a time under reconstruction but were ultimately still being fought for in the civil rights movement headed by Martin Luther King in the 1960's.

The Fourteenth Amendment explicitly prohibits states from violating an individual's rights of due process and equal protection. Equal protection limits the State and Federal governments' power to discriminate in their employment practices by treating employees, former employees, or job applicants unequally because of membership in a group, like a race, religion or sex. Due process protection requires that employees have a fair procedural process before they are terminated if the termination is related to a "liberty," like the right to free speech, or a property interest.

Amendment XV Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Beyond the Declaration of Indepence and the US Constitution both foundational documents in the United States Legal System. There are numerous laws and legislation on the books today which protect the rights of minorities. Some congressional acts even grant special privileges to minority races like the 8A program which recognizes special rights for businesses and gives them preferential treatment in bidding on government contracts. Other special rights include preferential treatment when applying for Universities which receive federal money, and preferential treatment when applying for federal jobs.


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  • Please take a look at the heavily edited question. I would have prefered it to be shorter but I needed to specify the details I', looking for, and that wouldn't have fitted in a comment. – user8690 Dec 20 '18 at 13:06