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October 6, 2004

Measuring Race and Ethnicity: Why and How?

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliation: Dr Winker is Deputy Editor, JAMA .

JAMA. 2004;292(13):1612-1614. doi:10.1001/jama.292.13.1612

Race and ethnicity are constantly evolving concepts, deceptively easy to measure and used ubiquitously in the biomedical literature, yet slippery to pinpoint as definitive individual characteristics. A current dictionary definition of race is “a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same common stock, or a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics.”1 For 154 years, the US government has defined race for its census takers, and for many years census takers then defined it for US residents. The terms used reflect the nation’s changing demographics and increasing recognition of human diversity. The 1850 enumerators used a form that assumed a default race of white, with a checkmark indicating nonwhites as black or mulatto, with additional indications for free or slave.2 Indian was added as a category in 1860. Since 1960, individuals have been able to specify their own race and ethnicity, and by 2000 the census enumerated 126 racial and ethnic categories.3

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