What exactly is a “racial health disparity”? This article explores five lenses that have been used to answer that question. It contends that racial health disparities have been presented—by researchers both within academia and outside of it—as problems of five varieties: biology, behavior, place, stress, and policy. It also argues that a sixth tradition exploring class—and its connection to race, racism, and health—has been underdeveloped. The author examines each of these conceptions of racial disparities in turn. Baked into each interpretive prism is a set of assumptions about the mechanisms that produce disparities—a story, in other words, about where racial health disparities come from. Discursive boundaries set the parameters for policy debate, determining what is and is not included in proposed solutions. How one sees racial health disparities, then, influences the strategies a society advocates—or ignores—for their elimination. The author ends by briefly discussing problems in the larger research ecosystem that dictate how racial health disparities are studied.

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