Understanding Racial-Ethnic Disparities in Health

For every dollar of wealth held by White Americans, African Americans have nine cents and Hispanics have 12; differences in socioeconomic status account for a significant component of racial health disparities.

In the early 20th century, W.E.B. Dubois argued that social factors, not inherent biological traits, caused disparities in health between Whites and Blacks. Today, Black Americans still face significant disadvantages. In 2006, White men outlived Black men by six years.

This essay provides an overview of sociological work exploring the relationship between race and health. The authors revisit evidence of health disparities, and a section that asks, “What is race?” describes efforts to understand race as a social category. The authors explain how discrimination discourages African Americans from using health care services; examine the role of social structures in creating health disparities; and consider factors that affect the health of immigrants.

Key Findings:

  • Sociologists reject the dominant view of the last century that racial disparities in health primarily reflect biological differences between racial groups.
  • Sociological work on social class underscores the various aspects of socioeconomic indicators.
  • Residential segregation, highest among African Americans, contributes to the emergence of disease.

This essay from a Journal of Health and Social Behavior supplement reviews sociological literature from the past 100 years. Numerous studies have found persistent health inequalities between White and Black Americans; recognizing that race is a social, rather than biological, category will advance the effort to improve the health of disadvantaged racial populations. The authors strongly urge researchers to collect and analyze health data by race, gender and socioeconomic indicators.