New research from a team at the University of New Mexico and the University of Tennessee is answering questions about how we identify race in other people. Heather Edgar, assistant professor of Anthropology and Curator at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, led a team that used a new orthodontics collection at the Maxwell Museum to ask how people estimate the races of others. The findings were published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

The research is based on a collection of 6,000 dental records donated to the university by orthodontist James Economides.  His practice in Albuquerque, N.M., encompassed all segments of the local population. His meticulous patient records included x-rays, dental casts and photos.  The research team used the photos and other patient information as the basis for their research. At least two observers classified more than 1,900 subjects for the study.

This study did two things that haven't been done before.  First, all the observers had precisely the same information on which to base their judgment. Second, they were asked what characteristics were informative about each subject's race.

Agreement between two observers was highest for African Americans at 96 percent, and lowest for Native Americans, at 75 percent. When observers disagreed about whether a subject was Native American, the confusion was usually with Hispanics.  And, when observers disagreed about a subject being Hispanic, the confusion was usually with European Americans. This pattern may be because Hispanics in New Mexico are mostly descended from European and Native Americans.

Individual observers were asked to estimate each subject's race based on photographs of their face and on their name.  They noted which indicators - hair color and form, facial features, skin color, and name -were influential in making their decision. They also considered address as an indicator that the subject was Native American if the location was on Tribal land.

Edgar says race is not a valid concept in human biology, but it is a social concept that is sometimes correlated with biological characteristics.  She says they don't know yet whether this research is applicable across the United States, but she points out that how we identify race has enormous implications for individuals and groups.

The U.S. government makes many decisions about how funds are allocated based in part on race.  Race is often a factor in determining how funding for healthcare is distributed, how clinical research is conducted, and especially in programs aimed at eliminating the affects of racism. The team points out that in these decisions, no matter how race is observed it will always be an imperfect substitute for understanding the consequences of complex, ever-shifting social forces.

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