An Open Letter to the CDC: Stop Using the Word “Race” to Mean “Ethnicity”

Dear Robert Redfield:

Please stop using the word “race” in CDC forms, literature, and official communications to refer to peoples’ ethnicity. Science has shown that there’s no such thing as more than one human race, and also, this idea fuels violence, which as you know, isn’t good for health.

Eliminating the word “race” to refer to ethnicity would help the CDC better uphold your pledge to the American people. Point 3 of that pledge is “Base all public health decisions on the highest quality scientific data that is derived openly and objectively.” As geneticist and statistician Alan Templeton’s work showed, humans do not have the significant biological differences required to constitute multiple races.

Rather, our differences are superficial: skin color, hair texture, facial and other physical characteristics. We have used the term “race” to reflect the weight of our identification with ethnic groups. Hence, “race” is a social, not a biological, term.

There are many legitimate reasons that the CDC might ask a person to identify their ethnicity, such as screening for certain diseases, tracking health behavior by demographic attributes, and so on. The CDC can do this by replacing “race” with “ethnicity,” “ethnic background,” or as the Census Bureau is currently testing, “category.” Or, simply ask, “Check all that apply to you:” before the list of ethnic backgrounds/bloodlines.

Second, it’s time. The CDC now acknowledges that health and well-being are multidimensional, and go far beyond the simple absence of disease. You have aggregated multidisciplinary research identifying physical, social, economic, emotional, psychological and life satisfaction, among other factors, as “critical to overall well-being.”

A happy Black family of all ages
A happy Black family of all ages
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Yet, as a group, Black people in this country have never enjoyed the level of well-being that white people have. Children need physical safety to learn and grow. People of all ages need a sense of belonging to thrive. Racism erodes those vital elements, and stresses the health of its victims.

Racist violence is now emerging into public consciousness at an unprecedented level. At least one U.S. city has declared racism a public health crisis. The American Medical Association has called for the cessation of police brutality against Black people, citing the many links between racism and health.

At the root of this life- and health-threatening violence against Black people is the mistaken notion that humans come in types, (or “races”), and that one type, namely “white” people, has license to dominate the rest. Hitler used that white supremacy myth (WSM — a nod to Cleo Manago for introducing me to that term) to justify the slaughter of six million Jews. In this country, we used the WSM to fuel “Manifest Destiny,” which led to the displacement and murder of most of the brown First Nations population. We also used the WSM to justify enslaving dark-skinned peoples of African descent, and to continue oppressing them to this day.

One way we can begin to dismantle this fatal mythology is to stop using “race” incorrectly, and replace it with “ethnicity” (or “category,” per the Census Bureau) where appropriate. Replacing “race” with a truer, less divisive word does not negate the reality of, the need to, nor the ability to identify racism, the individual and systemic mistreatment of members of oppressed classes based on perception of their “race” — rather, it dissolves racism’s underlying mythology. Nor will this necessary-but-insufficient shift in language solve the larger problems of organizational racism, such as within the CDC itself. As an example of only the tip of the iceberg, recently, more than a thousand signatories sent a letter to the head of the CDC demanding long-overdue reforms in internal race issues. The CDC clearly needs to dismantle its internal as well as its external white supremacy.

Rather, discontinuing use of the word “race” to label ethnic distinctions makes a small yet significant contribution to the larger set of ongoing efforts to dismantle white supremacy, which in turn helps the CDC fulfill its mission to promote wellness for all. Our collective health and well-being demand no less.

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