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Race and Health

Race is often confused with ethnicity or global/geographic genetic ancestry. Race is a social construct, whereas ethnicity refers to groups of people that share some common ancestry, traditions, language, or dialect. 

In the United States, race has a complex history rooted in early U.S. religion and politics surrounding slavery. Briefly, race started as a social construct based solely on physical features (i.e., skin color). “White” and “Colored” were among the first racial categories used to give white people power over non-white people (i.e., slaves and Native Americans). The concept of race has evolved to include a combination of physical features and continental ancestry (e.g. European American or African American).  

Race is not a proxy for genetic ancestry. Studies have shown that self-reported race does not reflect the broad distribution of genetic admixture observed in both African Americans and European Americans1-3.

While race and genetic ancestry are distinct concepts, they do overlap. Both race and genetic ancestry can affect health, and both can be useful in epidemiologic studies when used appropriately. Inclusion of diverse populations in research is a priority at the NIH.

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