Race & Ethnicity

"Race" and "ethnicity" are complex terms and often used interchangeably.  These terms were initially separated to designate “race” as a biological quality and “ethnicity” as a cultural phenomenon. This distinction mirrors efforts to distinguish sex and gender. Unlike “sex” and “gender,” however, there is little agreement on core distinctions between race and ethnicity.

Definition of Race 

Race is a powerful social category forged historically through oppression, slavery, and conquest.  Most geneticists agree that racial taxonomies at the DNA level are invalid.  Genetic differences within any designated racial group are often greater than differences between racial groups.  Most genetic markers do not differ sufficiently by race to be useful in medical research (Duster, 2009;Cosmides, 2003).

Race as a Social Category

Humans vary remarkably in wealth, exposure to environmental toxins, and access to medicine. These factors can create health disparities.  Krieger (2000) describes disparities that result from racial discrimination as “biological expressions of race relations.” African Americans, for example, have higher rates of mortality than other racial groups for 8 of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. (Race, Ethnicity, and Genetics Working Group, 2005). Although these disparities can be explained in part by social class, they are not reducible to class distinctions.

Scientific Racism

The U.S. National Institute of Medicine has noted that "historically, studies on race, ethnicity, age, nationality, religion, and sex have sometimes led to discriminatory practices" (Wizemann & Pardue, 2001). In the same way that science based on “inherent sex difference” was used throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to justify women's exclusion from science and the professions, and to deny women the rights of citizenship, science based on “inherent racial difference” was used to justify the continued subordination of non-white races (Russett, 1989; Schiebinger, 1993). Much research was done in the nineteenth century in efforts to show that differences in brain structure between whites and blacks reflected the lesser evolution of non-white peoples (Tucker, 1996). Twentieth-century debates over IQ and brain structure played a similar role (Gould, 1996).

Definition of Geographical Ancestry

Biologists Marcus Feldman and Richard Lewontin write that the 0.1% genetic difference among humans can be traced to divergent ancestral geographic regions. Sickle cell anemia, for example, should be thought of as connected not to race but to geographic ancestry.  Sickle cell disease arose where malaria is or was prevalent, including sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Indian subcontinent.  Thus knowledge of biogeographical ancestry may assist physicians in medical diagnosis (Koenig et al., 2008).

Definition of Ethnicity

Ethnicity denotes groups, such as Irish, Fijian, or Sioux, etc. that share a common identity-based ancestry, language, or culture. It is often based on religion, beliefs, and customs as well as memories of migration or colonization (Cornell & Hartmann, 2007).  In scientific analysis, it can be important to distinguish, however loosely, between race and ethnicity. Biological anthropologist Fatimah Jackson (2003) provides a pertinent example of cultural practices being misread as biological differences.  Microethnic groups living in the Mississippi Delta, she writes, use sassafras in traditional cooking.  Sassafras increases susceptibility to pancreatic cancer.  Medical practitioners who do not carefully disaggregate cultural and biological traits might interpret a geographic cluster of pancreatic cancer as related to a genetic or racial trait when, in fact, the disease is produced by cultural practices—in this case, shared culinary habits.

Current European Union Guidelines

  • The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance recommends that Member States “collect, in accordance with European laws, regulations and recommendations on data-protection and protection of privacy, where and when appropriate, data which will assist in assessing and evaluating the situation and experiences of groups which are particularly vulnerable to racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and intolerance” (ECRI, 1998; see also Simon, 2007).
  • Article 8 of the European Parliament Directive 95/46/EC requires that member states "prohibit the processing of personal data revealing racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, [or] trade-union membership, and the processing of data concerning health or sex life," subject to certain exceptions, including for scientific, health, and medical research. When such data are collected, the directive requires "specific and suitable safeguards so as to protect the fundamental rights and the privacy of individuals" (European Parliment, 1995).

Current U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Guidelines

The NIH requires that race and ethnicity be included as variables in medical research in efforts to ensure the health and well being of all Americans. The NIH requires that:

These guidelines specify that researchers must rely on subjects’ self-identification to collect data on race and ethnicity, and that respondents must be offered an opportunity to select more than one racial designation. These guidelines insist that “the categories in this classification are social-political constructs and should not be interpreted as being anthropological in nature.”

Problems with Race and Ethnicity Analysis in Research

  • NIH guidelines allow patients to select more than one “racial designation”; approximately 1 in 5 Americans identifies as multiracial, increasing the difficulty of making clear distinctions in research.
  • Defining ethnic groups may imply a greater homogeneity among peoples than exists. For example, the governmental body Statistics Netherlands (CBS) distinguishes between two categories of immigrants (allochtonen): those with a Western and those with a non-Western foreign background. The non-Western category includes people from regions as diverse as Africa, Latin America and Asia (Centrall Bureau vorr de Statistiek, 2011).
  • Ethnic and racial subpopulations relevant in specific European countries or in the U.S. are most often not relevant globally.
  • Emphasizing race downplays socioeconomic and environmental causes of health disparities.  The U.S. does not collect health statistics based on:
    • socioeconomic factors, such as education level, economic resources, or the health effects of systematic discrimination; or
    • environmental factors, such as quality of housing or exposure to toxins

Works Cited

  • Centrall Bureau vorr de Statistiek (CBS). (2011). Allochtoon. http://www.cbs.nl/nl-NL/menu/methoden/toelichtingen/alfabet/a/allochtoon.htm.
  • Cornell, S., & Hartmann, D. (2007). Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
  • Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., & Kurzban, R. (2003). Perceptions of Race. TRENDS in Cognitive Science, 4 (7), 173-179.
  • Duster, T. (2009). Debating Reality and Relevance. Science, 324 (5931), 1144-145.
  • European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). (1998). ECRI General Policy Recommendation Number 4 on National Surveys on the Experience and Perception of Discrimination and Racism from the Point of View of Potential Victims. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.
  • European Parliment. (1995). Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the Protection of Individuals with Regard to the Processing of Personal Data and on the Free Movement of Such Data. Official Journal of the European Communities, L281, 31.
  • Feldman, M. & Lewontin, R. (2008). Race, Ancestry, and Medicine. In Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. Ed. B. Koenig, Sandra S., S. Richardson. (Eds.) New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 2008, 89-101.
  • Gould, S. J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.
  • Jackson, F. (2003). Ethnogenetic Layering: A Novel Approach to Determining Environmental Health Risks Among Children from Three U.S. Regions. Journal of Children’s Health, 1 (3), 369–386.
  • Koenig, B., Lee, S., Richardson, S. (Eds.) (2008) Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press.
  • Krieger, N. (2000). Refiguring “Race”: Epidemiology, Racialized Biology, and Biological Expressions of Race Relations. International Journal of Health Services, 1 (30), 211-216.
  • Pardue, M., & Wizemann, T. (Eds.) (2001). Exploring the Biological Contributions to Human Health: Does Sex Matter? Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Genetics Working Group. (2005). The Use of Racial, Ethnic, and AncestralCategories in Human Genetics Research. American Journal of Human Genetics, 77, 519-532.
  • Russett, C.E. (1989). Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Schiebinger, L. (2004). Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  • Simon, P. (2007). “Ethnic” Statistics and Data Protection in the Council of Europe Countries. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.
  • Tucker, W. (1996). The Science and Politics of Racial Research. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.