Race and Ethnicity
RACE AND ETHNICITY
Within public health, there is disagreement about the meaning and use of the term "race." Often, public health scientists and the general public alike mistakenly base their notions of race on the idea that the human species can be separated into distinct human races identifiable through differences in physical traits (e.g., skin color, hair texture, facial features). Furthermore these ideas frequently carry with them the notion that these physical or other distinguishing traits have a basis in a homogeneous set of genes that differentiate races from one another. These ideas originated in the fifteenth century when the ability to support such ideas using sound scientific methods was not possible. Now, scientists from many disciplines (e.g., genetics, anthropology, sociology, biology)
A more recently developed concept about race is ethnicity. This concept, which emerged in the late eighteenth century, is usually conceptualized as membership in a group defined by a shared geographical origin or cultural history, including common language, religion, art, and other cultural factors. Ethnicity is distinguished from race in public health studies. In North America, the most common ethnic group designation is Hispanic, or Latino/Latina.
Historically, there are examples of extreme human rights violations justified through the notion of biologically homogeneous race and ethnic groups. Eugenics has been used to target members of racial and ethnic groups with oppressive and genocidal societal policies and actions. Just before World War II, eugenics formed the basis of Nazi genocidal policies toward Jews, and in the early twentieth century it resulted in landholding and job exclusionary policies toward European immigrants to the United States. Race as a social construction and social fact continues to figure prominently in political and ideological relations and systems of contemporary societies worldwide.
Starting in the 1970s, scientific evidence began to accumulate to support the idea that races, as distinct biologically or genetically homogeneous groups of humans, do not exist. Geneticists have shown that only a very small proportion (6% or less) of human genetic variability occurs between so-called races. Furthermore scientists within other disciplines, such as biology and anthropology, have discarded such definitions of race based upon notions of biologic or genetic homogeneity. Rather, scientists recognize that the concept of race has been socially constructed—initially in the sixteenth century to justify economic exploitation and political domination of certain populations distinguishable by physical features such as skin color—and that race is a set of economic, political, and cultural relations that result in health and social inequalities.
Public health scientists continue to use various categories of race in research. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), setting standards for the nation, recently recommended using the categories American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. The OMB recognizes that these categories represent a "sociopolitical construct" and "are not anthropologically or scientifically based."
In public health research, racial categories are often used to demonstrate inequalities in health status and other health-related factors such as access to and quality of health care. Unfortunately, some public health studies still interpret such inequalities as having a biologic or genetic basis. Thus, subtle and blatant forms of "scientific racism" and biological determinism are seen within the field of public health today. Public health scientists should be encouraged to use theories of race informed by current scientific evidence that so-called races are social constructs and social facts. Fortunately, public health studies have begun to identify and measure the social mechanisms (e.g., institutional and individual racism) that contribute to racial gaps rather than using race as a proxy for these exposures.
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Bonilla, S. E. (1999). "The Essential Social Fact of Race." American Sociological Review 64:899–906.
Cavilis-Sforza, L. L. (2000). Peoples and Languages, trans. M. Seielstad. New York: North Point Press.
Lewontin, R. L.; Rose, S.; and Kamin, L. J. (1984). Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature. New York: Pantheon Books.