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Racial and Ethnic Identification, Official Classifications, and Health Disparities

Gary D. Sandefur, Mary E. Campbell, and Jennifer Eggerling-Boeck

Our picture of racial and ethnic disparities in the health of older Americans is strongly influenced by the methods of collecting data on race and ethnicity. At one level there is a good deal of consistency in data collection. Most Americans and most researchers have in mind a general categorical scheme that includes whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and American Indians. Most Americans and nearly all researchers are also aware that these general categories disguise significant heterogeneity within each of these major groups. To the extent possible, recent research has attempted to identify and compare subgroups within each of the major racial and ethnic groups, making distinctions by country of origin, nativity, and generation within the United States. Most researchers generally agree that these categories are primarily social constructions that have changed and will continue to change over time.

Once we begin to explore more deeply the ways in which data on the elderly population are collected, however, we discover inconsistency across data sets and time. Part of this variation is from inconsistency in the way that Americans think and talk about race and ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are words that carry heavy intellectual and political baggage, and issues surrounding racial and ethnic identities are often contested within and across groups. The debate over racial and ethnic categories prior to the 2000 Census is one of the most recent, but by no means the only, example of these contests. Several advocacy groups pressured the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to revise its racial and ethnic categories and data collection schemes (see Farley, 2001, and Rodriguez, 2000, for discussions

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