Race and ethnicity are constantly evolving concepts, deceptively easy
to measure and used ubiquitously in the biomedical literature, yet slippery
to pinpoint as definitive individual characteristics. A current dictionary
definition of race is “a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging
to the same common stock, or a class or kind of people unified by shared interests,
habits, or characteristics.”1 For 154
years, the US government has defined race for its census takers, and for many
years census takers then defined it for US residents. The terms used reflect
the nation’s changing demographics and increasing recognition of human
diversity. The 1850 enumerators used a form that assumed a default race of
white, with a checkmark indicating nonwhites as black or mulatto, with additional
indications for free or slave.2 Indian was
added as a category in 1860. Since 1960, individuals have been able to specify
their own race and ethnicity, and by 2000 the census enumerated 126 racial
and ethnic categories.3
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