For one of my classes for my Medicine, Health and Society major, we recently discussed the controversy over racial categorization in scientific studies and medical treatment. In short, in an effort to be more racially inclusive (minorities are vastly underrepresented in scientific research), in the 1990s the NIH implemented a policy that made its funded studies use racial categories in order to keep track of how diverse their study participants were. These categories are controversial because they leave little room for multi- or bi-racial individuals and they can also be extremely broad (e.g. Asian is one category despite the diversity of the continent). These racial classifications also present a problem because they are all self-reported by the participants, and so leave room for questions about what determines race really. Race can either be biologically or socially determined. If someone is only one-quarter latino, but was raised in a latino community and lived the “latino experience” (again, how can you classify that?), should they write that they are white on the study’s forms? In addition to this controversy, there is debate over whether or not it is even necessary to include race in published studies as it may only serve to intensify myths of racial differences, when the outcomes of a study may be attributed to a variety of other social factors, such as stress, weight or upbringing, none of which are part of the biological definition of race.
I find this issue interesting for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that I work on an NIH-funded research study at VUMC. The study I work on is one in which individuals with undiagnosed diseases seek out and apply to our study with a referral from a medical provider. Because of this, our participants are a self-selective and our study does not actively recruit. Over the past few months, however, even I had begun to notice that our study’s participants were overwhelmingly white. This is not because minorities do not have diseases or suffer from medical mysteries, but because do to institutional racism and oppression many people of color are not afforded the same economic or social status needed to have access to the type of medical care that would inform them of such a study. I don’t think the answer to increasing diversity among research participants is creating arbitrary categories but rather working to decrease the structural barriers for participation of people of color in medical research.