Health Disparities and Race

Race is a social construct that divides people into groups based on physical appearance and sociological factors. It is commonly used to identify, distinguish and marginalize individuals and communities around the world. Many people experience disadvantages solely because they are of a particular racial group. These can include discrimination, oppression and inequality in all areas of life including housing, employment, education and health.

Historically, the concept of race was created to prove biological superiority and sustain power over other people. However, it has been proven that race is not an accurate or scientifically valid classification of humans. It has also been shown that racial categories are socially constructed and can be fluid, based on how someone is perceived by their peers or how they themselves define themselves.

Ethnicity is a broader category that encompasses race and more specific characteristics like language, cuisine, religion, customs and traditions. It is the foundation of most cultures around the globe and can be traced back to a common ancestry, but it can still differ from person to person.

Some studies have shown that the difference between ethnicity and race is a myth, with most people having one or more ethnic identities. These differences are caused by social/cultural factors such as how people live, where they come from and their shared experiences and are not influenced by genetics.

The use of the term “race” can be misleading, especially in the context of discussions about the racial impact on health disparities. This can be because of the way that researchers or health care workers may classify a patient or research participant, or because of the way in which the term is used in everyday conversation.

When used in a medical or scientific context, the term race is often defined as an evolutionary lineage rather than a culturally arbitrary category of humankind (Amato and Gatesy, 1994; Crandall, Binida-Emonds, Mace and Wayne, 2000). In this sense it has become a natural historical population unit that emerges from modern phylogenetic theory and practice.

It is important to distinguish between the two, as they have different meanings and have been influenced by different historical and political factors. Race can be a useful and powerful tool for identifying and monitoring health inequities, but it is important to use the term with caution. It is helpful to understand that a patient’s self-reported race is different from their observer-classified race.

In the US, some surveys have moved from observer-classified races to self-reported ones in response to guidelines from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). These surveys provide five minimum categories for race: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. They also allow respondents to choose more than one option, resulting in six categories for data products. It is important for users to know how the six categories were created and to understand the methodology behind each. This allows for a more meaningful comparison between products.