Health Policy


Race and Ethnicity Data Collection: Beyond Standardization

Many nonwhite populations in the United States have poorer health relative to whites across a wide array of health measures. Many also face greater barriers to accessing high-quality healthcare than whites, barriers that a growing number of public and private sector actors seek to eliminate. These efforts, however, have been impaired by an inadequate understanding of race and ethnicity in the U.S. context. What defines a “racial” or “ethnic” group? Why do race and ethnicity matter when it comes to health research and health care? Absent clear answers to these questions, researchers, policymakers, and the general public frequently resort to antiquated assumptions about race, ethnicity, and human variability that obscure a more accurate understanding of the role that these factors play in contributing to health inequities.

This brief serves as a starting point for those who wish to better understand race, ethnicity, and the use of these categories in health. In the first half of the brief, the difference between race and ethnicity is reviewed and an overview of genetics is presented in order to explain why race is in fact not genetic. The second half of this brief reviews the history of race data collection by federal agencies. This history demonstrates the social construction of race by chronicling how race categories have changed over time. In addition, it reminds us that government agencies are crucial sites for determining what race is and how it will be used. Finally, in the last section of the brief, major challenges to accurate data collection are reviewed and several actions are recommended that the federal government could take to move the field of health and health care disparities research to its next stage.

Read the brief here.