The Role of Race in Biomedical Research and Clinical Practice


Race is a social construct that in its most benign form is used to categorize groups of people according to a small group of phenotypes and cultural differences; in its most insidious form it is used to assign value to a racial hierarchy that has profound impacts on individuals’ lives, conferring unearned advantages on some and withholding them from others. We cannot fully address the root causes of our society’s most serious challenges – poverty, inequality and oppression – without confronting the role that race plays in those systems.

For example, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that blacks are more likely to report that being black has hurt their ability to get ahead than whites; and that when asked what has helped them succeed, those same blacks were less likely to name things like family finances or hard work, than whites were. The same pattern holds true for other racial and ethnic groups.

Many studies have shown that human genetic variation is much more closely linked to environment and behavior than to a discrete biological category called race. This has led to a consensus among many evolutionary scientists that the concept of race is flawed and that most genetic differences between populations are explained by other factors, such as environmental influence, mutation rates or genetic drift.

However, even though scientific researchers have shifted away from the use of the term “race” to describe human genetic variation, sociologists and historians still frequently invoke the term when discussing social and historical categories for differentiating humans. In fact, some academics have argued that it is not appropriate to talk about human evolution or biology without also talking about how people use the language of race to understand and explain the world around them.

The US Census Bureau continues to classify people into the racial categories of Black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander and White. Increasingly these racial categories have been defined so broadly that they can include multiple ethnic groups. For example, many people with African continental ancestry (which would be classified by the Census Bureau as Black) are Latinos.

These varying definitions of races have significant implications for biomedical research and clinical practice, especially when they are self-reported or observer-assigned rather than genetically determined. For instance, some studies have found that when health professionals and researchers rely on observer-assigned classification of race and ethnicity in surveys, the results are not always reliable — for example, health outcomes may be reported differently by those who are socially-assigned as White than those who are self-identified as White [47].

Consider using more inclusive terms in your communication, such as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) or People First (People with Diverse Backgrounds, Experiences and Desires). If you are not sure what is best for your audience, ask them how they prefer to be identified. For example, some people who are a combination of races feel more comfortable with the acronym BIPOC than with the word Black because it acknowledges the overlapping identities and experiences that make up the Black community.