Race, Ethnicity, and Health: Can Genetics Explain Disparities?

Over the past decade, numerous studies have documented profound racial and ethnic disparities in disease in the United States. This essay examines how popular and scientific concepts of race and ethnicity converge with dominant understandings of genetics to inform the design and interpretation of research, public health policy, and medical practice. Although there is some acknowledgment in the biomedical community that racial and ethnic categories are social and not genetic, ideas about race and ethnicity that circulate in biomedicine are contradictory. Thus, in practice genetic explanations for observed differences are common both in the scientific literature and in popular media accounts of biomedical research. Such explanations naturalize racial and ethnic difference and create a conceptual barrier to developing a research program that explores the complex ways in which social inequality and experiences of racial discrimination interact with human biology to influence patterns of disease. Importantly, genetically based ideas lead to disease prevention policies that are bound to be ineffective.