Expert Commentary

Cause of death affects racial classification on death certificates

2011 study conducted by University of California, Irvine, on the discrepancies between individuals' reported race at birth and death and the possible role of the cause of death.

Deceased man (iStock)

Logic dictates that the race listed on an individual’s birth and death certificates would be consistent. Assignment of race at the time of death can be based on a number of factors, however, so the potential for discrepancies exists.

A 2011 study from University of California, Irvine published in PLoS ONE, “Cause of Death Affects Racial Classification on Death Certificates,” sought to understand how such discrepancies can arise and what the consequences can be. Using a nationally representative sample of death certificates, researchers surveyed deceased person’s relatives to examine the accuracy of official death records and potential reasons for any inconsistencies.

The study’s findings include:

  • Next-of-kin racial classifications did not match what was officially recorded in 1.1% of death certificates.
  • A person who died of chronic liver disease was 2.4 times more likely to be classified as American Indian than white.
  • A homicide victim was 4.4 times more likely to be classified as black.
  • Of the 12,937 victims of homicide officially listed as black in 1993, 204 would not have been so classified by their next of kin.

The researchers conclude that their findings “suggest that seemingly non-racial characteristics, such as cause of death, affect how people are racially perceived by others and thus shape U.S. official statistics.” Such predispositions may thus influence national statistics, researchers said, and further often negative stereotypes.

Tags: Hispanic, Latino, race, African-American, Native American