Counting beans the proper way

By Razib Khan | February 10, 2011 9:46 am

Apropos of several of my recent posts, The New York Times has an interesting article up, Counting by Race Can Throw Off Some Numbers. Basically it outlines the difficulty of enumerating different racial and ethnic groups for different purposes in a more diverse and racially mixed USA. Numbers matter when it comes to apportioning resources, and the current methods are often quite coarse (though some interest groups prefer it that way, because it bolsters their numbers). Let’s focus on the point germane to the focus of this weblog:

The National Center for Health Statistics collects vital statistics from the states to document the health of the population. When it comes to collecting birth certificate information, though, the center encounters a problem: 38 states and the District of Columbia report race data in the new and more expansive manner that allows for the recording of more than one race. But a dozen states do not, because they still use old data systems and outdated forms. As a result, the center cannot produce consistent national data for what it calls “medical and health purposes only.”

To get around that problem, the center reclassifies mixed-race births using a complex algorithm. For example, a birth to a parent who marked white, Asian and Native American would be declared just one of those races, depending on a number of variables in a probability model, like sex, age of the mother and place of birth. (Birth data is reported, in most cases, by the race of the mother.)

The medical part is disturbing to me, because I just realized I’ve been part of the problem. You see, the article doesn’t acknowledge that the category “Asian” is genetically incoherent! A friend stated what I was thinking as a good solution: everyone gets a genomic admixture analysis done, and that’s what gets entered into the medical databases. So a white Hispanic with “pure Spanish ancestry” will be counted as white for medical purposes, but counted as Hispanic for the purposes of identity politics. And black Americans who are more than 50% European in ancestry, such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., will be appropriated “weighted” when it comes to medical genetics focusing on African Americans.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics, Health
MORE ABOUT: Admixture, Analysis, Health

Comments (3)

  1. Antonio

    I would assume that after some level of mixing the reference to the original populations is no longer helpful ( and , of course, I am also assuming it does matter at some point 🙂 )

  2. Of course just using genetic admixture obscures the social aspects of medicine. Hispanics and African Americans don’t have (on average) worse health than European Americans because of their genes, after all.

  3. Hispanics and African Americans don’t have (on average) worse health than European Americans because of their genes, after all.

    genes may be part of it. different populations may react differently to the same diet (the connection here between south asians and type 2 is pretty obvious, because different south asian populations seem to have different susceptibilities too).


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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