The Concept of Race and Health


The term race refers to a categorization of people into groups that are viewed as distinct from each other on the basis of physical or social qualities. Historically, racial categories have categorized people from different geographic areas, often defined by skin tone and other characteristics. Modern scholarship, however, generally views race as a social construct with no genetic or biological significance. Nevertheless, many people find the concept of race to be significant to their identity and experiences, particularly those in minority groups who have historically experienced marginalization or oppression.

A large body of research suggests that structural racism (the systematic pattern of biases that affect institutions and organizations in society, resulting in disadvantages for individuals and communities) contributes to poor health outcomes for some racial groups. These include higher rates of low socioeconomic status, poorer mental and physical health, and lower educational attainment, among other issues.

These problems are most prevalent in the United States and elsewhere around the world, but the problem of race is complex and interconnected. The key to solving it, in many ways, is educating people about the impact of racism on their lives and addressing the root causes of discrimination.

Racial groupings were established long ago, and they have since shaped cultural norms and institutions around the globe. For example, the racial categories we use on birth records and in surveys were based on the observations of government enumerators who reviewed a person’s appearance or asked questions about their family history.

The Census Bureau’s racial groups were based on the five minimum response categories identified by OMB, which are White, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. The Census Bureau also included a “Two or More Races” category, which is used in some data products. People may select two or more races either by checking multiple box responses or by providing other information.

In addition to affecting health and well-being, the concept of race is significant for many Americans’ sense of self. According to our national survey, about half of all adults say their racial background is very or somewhat important to how they think about themselves. And about three-in-ten whites and a similar share of blacks say that being a member of their racial group has helped them get ahead in life, while roughly a third of each says it has hurt them. For younger generations, these patterns are less clear.