Race Concept

ANALYSIS WORKGROUP
Our mission is to foster the improvements in the analysis of health related phenomena among older minority; encourage the development of methods and measures that better capture the health and determinants of health of diverse elders; promote collaboration between RCMAR sites on analysis issues; and disseminate new knowledge in this area.

Race Concept


Conceptualizing Race and Ethnicity

Prepared by: Center for Aging in Diverse Communities (CADC), UCSF and RCMAR Coordinating Center (UCLA)

Although the concept of race is regularly used as a meaningful descriptor in health research, many have challenged the scientific utility of the concept. There is no doubt that the construct of race is often used in an uncritical manner. It is sometimes used as a proxy for socioeconomic status and is very often used synonymously with such terms as ethnicity and culture. As a result, the scientific community has seen an increase in writings questioning the existence of race as a meaningful construct. Similarly, some have noted that while terms such as “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” “American Indian,” and “White,” may be bureaucratically convenient, they have made talking and thinking about race and ethnicity somewhat simplistic. Some argue that these are overly broad pan-ethnic labels that categorize a disparate number of groups who happen to share a few visible characteristics such as skin color and a few other identifiable physical features. Others argue that these are biologically meaningful population groups with significant genetic differences. These varying perspectives have resulted in some interesting and provocative reading material. This reading list is based on the assumption that all social scientists interested in a deeper understanding of population group differences can benefit from exposure to the ongoing debate about the appropriate conceptualization and measurement (e.g., self-report versus observer report) of race and ethnicity and the quality of data on race/ethnicity in different datasets.



The request for scientifically appropriate terminology in research on race, ethnicity, and health has largely bypassed the term White. This and other words, such as Caucasian, are embedded in clinical and epidemiological discourse, yet they are rarely defined. This commentary analyzes the issue from the perspective of the epidemiology of the health of minority ethnic and racial groups in Europe and the United States. Terminology that reflects the research purpose-for examples, reference, control, or comparison--is better (unlike White, these terms imply no norm). This paper widens the debate on nomenclature for racial and ethnic groups. Many issues need exploration, including whether there is a shared understanding among the international research community of the terms discussed.


  • Corcos AF. The myth of human races East Lansing: Michigan State University Press; 1997.


We propose that ethnicity be conceptualized as a two-dimensional, context-specific, social construct with an attributional dimension that describes group characteristics (e.g., culture, nativity) and a relational dimension that indexes a group's location within a social hierarchy (e.g., minority vs. majority status). This new conceptualization extends prior definitions in ways that facilitate research on ethnicization, social stratification and health inequities.


Congressional historical article.


Measuring racial disparities in mortality relies on accurate reporting of race on death certificates. This study looks at how funeral directors determine race for filling out death certificates. Seventy-nine percent of respondents reported finding certain demographic items difficult to complete--26% first specified race as the problematic item, and 25% first specified education. The decedent's race was "sometimes" or "often" determined through personal knowledge of the family by 58% of respondents; 43% reported "sometimes" or "often" determining race by observation.


We conducted 30 interviews with human genetics scientists from the US and Canada who use racial/ethnic variables in their research. They discussed the types of classifications they use, the criteria upon which they are based, and their methods for classifying individual samples and subjects. We found definitions of racial/ethnic variables were often lacking or unclear, the specific categories they used were inconsistent and context specific, and classification practices were often implicit and unexamined. We conclude that such conceptual and practical problems are inherent to routinely used racial/ethnic categories themselves, and that they lack sufficient rigor to be used as key variables in biological research


Argues for attention to culture in addition to SES as a way to make sense of health behavior differences between populations, especially because of the importance of health behavior in cancer etiology and treatment. Provides multilevel conceptual models that incorporate culture.


In the current US political climate, conservative foundations are seeking to frame debates over determinants of racial/ethnic health disparities as a matter of "politically correct" unscientific ideology (concerning the health impacts of discrimination) vs scientific yet "politically incorrect" expertise rooted in biological facts (concerning genes). I draw on historical and contemporary examples to place conservative polemics in context, and also highlight fundamental flaws in their arguments involving the use of spurious categories (e.g., Caucasian), logical fallacies, temporal fallacies, and an erroneous emphasis on gene frequency over gene expression.


This article (1) outlines the magnitude of confounding between race and socioeconomic status; (2) demonstrates problems caused by this confounding; (3) examines the degree to which race disparities are a function of socioeconomic status; and (4) discusses considerations for advancing research on health disparities after accounting for the confounding of race and socioeconomic status.



Research aimed at increasing our understanding of health disparities and designing and evaluating interventions to improve African-American health is hampered by a liberal, classless approach. Authors argue for a theoretical framework that recognizes that class exploitation sets the stage for and interacts with racial discrimination to determine racial inequities in health.


Any explanation that ignores large improvements in population health and fails to account for the emergence of disparities for specific diseases is an inadequate explanation of current disparities. We argue that genetic explanations and some prominent social causation explanations are incompatible with these facts. We propose that the theory of "fundamental causes" can account for both vast improvements in population health and the creation of large socioeconomic and racial disparities in mortality for specific causes of death over time. Specifically, we argue that it is our enormously expanded capacity to control disease and death in combination with existing social and economic inequalities that create health disparities by race and socioeconomic status: When we develop the ability to control disease and death, the benefits of this new-found ability are distributed according to resources of knowledge, money, power, prestige, and beneficial social connections. We present data on changing mortality patterns by race and socioeconomic status for two types of diseases: those for which our capacity to prevent death has increased significantly and those for which we remain largely unable to prevent death. Time trends in mortality patterns are consistent with the fundamental cause explanation.


This article shows how analyses of Hispanics—who may officially be of any race—tend to miss discrimination based on racial appearance by relying on data that instead capture racial self-identification, a different aspect of race that often does not correspond. Respondents interpreted the Census race question in different ways corresponding to different aspects of race, which often do not match one another. Although respondents experience discrimination on the basis of phenotype, their racial self-identification is a poor proxy for measuring their racial appearance.


This article addresses the potential impact of the revised standards for race and ethnicity on data from the 2000 census and public health data sources. The relationship between race/ethnicity and health in selected measuresis examined, identifying the factors that influence race/ethnicity identification, considering past experience in race/ethnicity reporting, and exploring the challenges in understanding and managing the effects of new racial/ethnic categories in various data sets. The multiple-race group seems to compose only a small percentage of the US population and may have little impact on data for single-race groups. More research is needed to support a thorough understanding of the reporting of multirace data and the development of techniques for analyzing these data.


This article reviews the literature on the concept and measurement of race and compares how the findings apply to the United States and Brazil. We discuss in detail the data quality issues related to the measurement of race and the problems raised by measuring race in multiracial societies like Brazil. We discuss how these issues and problems apply to public health.


There is no consensus on the appropriate conceptualization of race in economic models of health care because race is rarely the primary focus for analysis of the market. This article presents an alternative framework for conceptualizing race in health economic models. A case study is analyzed to illustrate the value of the alternative conceptualization. Findings clearly document the importance of model stratification according to race and indicate that empirical results are improved when medical utilization models are refined in a way that reflects the unique experiences of the population that is studied.


Presents the value of using quantitative genetic approaches to understanding individual differences and ethnic diversity in aging. There are three major points discussed: 1) the difference between race and ethnicity, 2) inter-versus intra-group differences, and 3) the contribution of quantitative genetics methods to understanding individual variation within ethnic groups and differences and similarities between ethnic groups. Also includes a discussion of several twin studies of older African Americans.


Racial disparities in mortality over time reflect divergent pathways to the current large racial disparities in health. The residential concentration of African Americans is high and distinctive, and the related inequities in neighborhood environments, socioeconomic circumstances, and medical care are important factors in initiating and maintaining racial disparities in health. Efforts are needed to identify and maximize health-enhancing resources that may reduce some of the negative effects of psychosocial factors on health. Health and health disparities are embedded in larger historical, geographic, sociocultural, economic, and political contexts.


The term "race" has many definitions , but in common and medical usage, defining "race" has meant separating Homo sapiens into three to six groups. This division of Homo sapiens into race taxons started in the 18th century, when the sciences of genetics and evolutionary biology were not yet invented. These disciplines have since shown that human race taxonomy has no scientific basis. Race categories are social constructs, that is, concepts created from prevailing social perceptions without scientific evidence. Despite modern proof that race is arbitrary biological fiction, racial taxons are still used widely in medical teaching, practice, and research. In contrast, ethnicity is a concept that incorporates social, religious, linguistic, dietary, and other variables to identify individual persons and populations. Ethnicity may be able to impart clinical clues to diagnosis if the clinician taking the history is well informed and open minded.