the keyword search
by Taylor Phillips
Keywords: race, ethnicity, social determinant of health, racial determinism, biological determinism, COVID-19, health disparities
Biological determinism, an ideology prevalent since the 17th century, asserts that different racial groups possess inherently different traits that result in varied social and health outcomes. However, this idea has been rejected by many scholars, including American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), who argued that the existing health disparities seen are the result of unequal social and political conditions and not biologically innate differences between racial groups (1899). Biological determinism has been further refuted more recently as sociologists, anthropologists, and geneticists posit that there is no biological basis for race as 99.9% of the human genome is identical and a single absolute variant has not been found (Roberts and Rollins, 2020).
Yet, still within today’s public health discourse, keywords such as “race” and “ethnicity” have been used as a primary predictor of one’s ‘social determinants of health’ to explain why certain groups of people are more or less susceptible to illness. The current research aims to explore how race is measured, used as a metric in public health research, and who is benefitting from its use as a metric. During the COVID-19 pandemic, African Americans, Latinx, and Native American populations were disproportionately affected by the virus having more deaths and hospitalization rates than White Americans (Bhala et al., 2020). While these patterns in health cannot be denied, they should be viewed under a critical lens and not be assumed to have a causal relationship.
I argue that describing race as a ‘social determinant’ is reductive and fails to answer why these patterns exist through examining how race and ethnicity in public health often conflates the social and biological. By moving away from racially deterministic language like SDoH, active steps can be taken towards addressing the actual causes underlying the health disparities seen today.
This racial determinism has been rejected by many scholars, including American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, who argued that the existing health disparities seen are the result of unequal social and political conditions and not biologically innate differences between racial groups.
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