Race Workgroup

The Race Workgroup is a multidisciplinary group of scholars from the fields of genetics, psychiatry, clinical psychology, history of science, anthropology, law, health services research, and health policy, and were all members of the Georgetown Ethics Research Consortium on Smoking and Genetics.

We focused on smoking not only because it is an enormously important public health concern (World Health Organization, 1997), but also because we have come to believe that the complexities of issues involved in the race/genetics debate are virtually impossible to address and resolve in the abstract and are far more likely to be elucidated in the concrete context of a particular line of genetic inquiry.

Over the past 7 years, we have struggled as a group to understand and respond to a set of critically important methodological and social concerns regarding the intersection of race and genetics from our various disciplinary perspectives. We have sought to identify research strategies that meet genetic researchers’ methodological concerns about potential bias due to ethnic admixture, while minimizing risk of unintended adverse social consequences associated with the racialized framing of genetic research results. Our work is in the spirit of stimulating discussion and debate about best practices in genetic research aimed at understanding the etiology of complex diseases, improving human health, and reducing health disparities.

Our group published a highly publicized paper in the American Psychological Association’s special issue in the American Psychologist on race and genetics, which received national and international attention In this paper, we argued that the use of self-identified race variables in genetics studies aimed at understanding the etiology of disease is inappropriate. While such variables are appropriate and powerful metrics for tracking health disparities, they are not appropriate as proxies for human genetic heterogeneity. More powerful measures of human genetic variation are available (e.g. measures of geographical ancestry) and should be used.

Related Publications

  • Shields A.E., Fortun M., Hammonds E., King P.A., Lerman C., Rapp R., Sullivan P.F. The use of race variables in genetic studies of complex traits and the goal of reducing health disparities: A transdisciplinary perspective. American Psychologist. 2005; 6(1):77-103. PMID: 15641924.
  • Braun L., Fausto-Sterling A., Fullwiley D., Hammonds E.M., Nelson A., Quivers W., Reverby S.M., Shields, A.E. Racial categories in medical practice: How useful are they?  Public Library of Science Medicine. 2007; 4(9) e271. PMID: 17896853.