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You will automatically be saddled with a certain set of faction standings based on your race. The Amarr currently enslave a good portion of the Minmatar population, for example, so NPC corps and contacts of those races are going to have a dim view of each other. This makes it hard to develop Amarrian agents as a Minmatar, and vice versa.
Race also determines your starting ship skills, although once you buy a full account you can train up in the ships of other races.
Lastly, race determines where you start in the galaxy.