Skip to Navigation

Social Class in America: Racial Fluidity and Socioeconomic Status

Diana T. Sanchez and Julie A. Garcia, Rutgers University and California Polytechnic State University
May 7, 2012

social class in AmericaEditor's Note: Diana T. Sanchez and Julie A. Garcia are contributors to RSF's volume Facing Social Class: How Societal Rank Influences Interaction. As part of our forum on social class in America, they discuss their research below on the interaction between socioeconomic status and racial categorization.

The recent "Occupy Movement" has fueled the debate about economic inequalities in America. A popular slogan of this movement, "We are the 99%," highlights that wealth in America remains largely concentrated among the top 1% of income earners. This reality runs counter to the "bootstrap myth" that many Americans embrace; achievement, economic or otherwise, can be a reality for anyone that works hard. Rather, the "Occupy Movement" aims to shed light on how the powerful effects of corruption and greed have created a seemingly insurmountable schism between the "haves" and the "have-nots." While economic disparities have been brought to the fore, some correlates of economic markers remain largely unexplored. Namely, little attention has been given to the interplay between socioeconomic status (SES) and race.


Our work, and others, demonstrates that class and racial identification remain inextricably linked, such that class informs perceptions of race. In other words, SES plays a pivotal role in both racial self-categorization and categorization by others. People higher in SES are more likely to be categorized, and categorize themselves, in higher status racial groups (e.g., White) compared to lower status racial groups (e.g., Black). Stated differently, a person is more likely to categorize another as Black if he or she perceives that person as lower in SES. Also, someone who has a higher SES is more likely to self-categorize herself as White than Black.

One negative consequence of perceiving those lower in SES as belonging to a lower status racial category is that this serves to reify stereotypes. For example, a longitudinal survey of youth examined changes in racial classification as a function of SES (Penner & Saperstein, 2008). They examined year-to-year changes in interviewers' Black and White categorization of more than twelve thousand respondents. Findings indicated that interviewers' racial categorizations fluctuated for 20 percent of the respondents and that these variations corresponded to changes in economic status. Respondents who had been classified as White in the previous year were less likely to be classified as White the following year if they were living below the poverty line, incarcerated, or employed. Other research indicates that if a person of African descent identifies as Black or has a low-SES background, he or she will likely be viewed as having dark skin (Telles, 2002). Taken together, these data indicate the multiple ways in which SES provides a lens through which race is perceived.


These data are in line with our recent findings. We examined how neighborhood SES affected racial self-identification among a sample of 78 biracial participants (23 Black-White, 29 Asian-White, and 26 Latino-White). We employed a signal contingent experience sampling design, where we asked participants to indicate their level of identity importance and meanings multiple times over one week. We aggregated these scores to examine their overall identification (perception of centrality), private regard (pride) and public regard (perceptions of others evaluations) of their minority component identity. For example, an Asian and White biracial participant was asked to indicate if she viewed her Asian identity as central (important), valued by herself (private regard), and valued by others (public regard). Further, we examined the degree to which neighborhood SES and diversity (computed via zip codes) moderated identity importance and meanings. We found that multiracial people from higher SES and neighborhoods and largely White contexts reported lower private regard (pride) and importance (centrality) for their minority background. We can extrapolate from these findings that neighborhoods provide important insight into the ways in which race and class intersect to predict self-identification.

Importantly, taken as a whole, the research outlined above provides evidence for the malleability of racial categorization. This assertion contends with many people’s general tendency to view racial categories as simplified and intractable. For example, the "one drop rule"—a colloquial term coined in the 19th century—stipulates that any person with "one drop" of African ancestry should be categorized as Black. However, our research, and others, demonstrates that SES informs the way we see race. By acknowledging the profound ways SES affects racial categorization, we become more aware of potential biases in self and other perception. Rather than simply using SES as a covariate in research (i.e., something to be controlled for), researchers need to critically examine how SES affects racial categorization. As this line of research indicates, perceptions of a person’s socioeconomic status constructs and reproduces racial meanings in ways that ultimately leads to the persistence of inequalities.

—DIANA T. SANCHEZ is an associate professor of psychology at Rugers University. JULIE A. GARCIA is an associate professor of psychology at California Polytechnic State University.