We consider different possible interpretations of the “effect of race” when regressions are run with race as an exposure variable, controlling also for various confounding and mediating variables. When adjustment is made for socioeconomic status early in a person's life, we discuss under what contexts the regression coefficients for race can be interpreted as corresponding to the extent to which a racial disparity would remain if various socioeconomic distributions early in life across racial groups could be equalized. When adjustment is also made for adult socioeconomic status, we note how the overall disparity can be decomposed into the portion that would be eliminated by equalizing adult socioeconomic status across racial groups and the portion of the disparity that would remain even if adult socioeconomic status across racial groups were equalized. We also discuss a stronger interpretation of the “effect of race” involving the joint effects of skin color, parental skin color, genetic background and cultural context when such variables are thought to be hypothetically manipulable and if adequate control for confounding were possible. We discuss some of the challenges with such an interpretation. Further discussion is given as to how the use of selected populations in examining racial disparities can additionally complicate the interpretation of the effects.
Biostatistics | Demography, Population, and Ecology | Inequality and Stratification | Race and Ethnicity
VanderWeele, Tyler J. and Robinson, Whitney, "On the causal interpretation of race in regressions adjusting for confounding and mediating variables" (November 2013). Harvard University Biostatistics Working Paper Series. Working Paper 163.