Minority Report

Risk factors included racial/ethnic minority status, male sex, higher hemoglobin A1c level, use of insulin, longer duration of diabetes, and higher systolic blood pressure.—From This Week in JAMA, August 11, 2010.

The meaning of the adjective minority in this statement may appear to be clear to the reader. However, what constitutes minority status for race/ethnicity? In which country, population, or time? And in this context—risk factors for diabetic retinopathy—why would minority status per se (as opposed to a specific genetic background, or perhaps lower socioeconomic status and resulting lack of access to health care) be a risk factor? This usage points to a common but probably outdated use of the term minority to refer to a population of people. Why is this term to be avoided in this context?

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary1 defines minority as “a part of a population differing from others in some characteristics and often subjected to differential treatment; … a member of a minority group (an effort to hire more minorities)” and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language2 states, “A racial, religious, political, national, or other group regarded as different from the larger group.” These definitions evolved from the more basic meaning of minority. Insofar as usage and equity are concerned, however, historian Amoja Three Rivers stated emphatically 20 years ago that “at least four-fifths of the world’s population consists of people of color. Therefore, it is statistically incorrect as well as ethnocentric to refer to [them] as minorities. The term ‘minority’ is used to reinforce the idea of people of color as ‘other.’”3 The white race is becoming a “minority” in many countries where that had previously not been the case, including the United States. Nor are women to be considered minorities simply by their numbers (as an example of this, in the United States in the academic year 2008–2009, among first-year enrollees in medical school, there were 9619 men and 8889 women, compared with 10 576 men and 6205 women in 1988–19894).

When used as a noun to describe and thus label and marginalize a racial/ethnic, gender-specific, physically disabled, or other group of persons with a common trait, minority (and minorities) is an exclusive term that should be avoided.

Note: Minority (and majority) is appropriate to use when describing, for example, the count (number) in an election, an opinion of a nation’s high court, or in common usage to mean less than half (or more than half) of a given sample.—Roxanne K. Young, ELS, with thanks to Margaret A. Winker, MD

1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.

2. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Co; 1992.

3. Maggio R. Talking About People: A Guide to Fair and Accurate Language. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press; 1997:273.

4. Barzansky B, Etzel SI. Medical schools in the United States, 2008–2009. JAMA. 2009;302(12):1353(appendix I, table 2).

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