The Consequences of Racial Fluidity for Inequality in the United States

Other External Scholars:
Andrew Penner, University of California, Irvine
Aliya Saperstein, University of Oregon
Project Date:
Nov 2009
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

In a New York Times survey that followed the 2000 Census, four out of ten people who listed multiple races on the Census later changed their self categorization. Kenneth Prewitt, the Director of the 2000 U.S. Census and Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University, commented that, for many Americans, racial labels have morphed from strict categories to “something closer to an attitude toward oneself.” Recent research has also found that Americans who succeed are more likely to be seen as and identify as white, and Americans who do not succeed are more likely to be seen as and identify as African American. 

While the effect of an individual’s racial categorization on socioeconomic status has been well-documented, little is known about how the perception of an individual’s race is shaped by status. Sociologists Andrew Penner, University of California, and Aliya Saperstein, University of Oregon, will examine some of the specific factors that trigger changes in racial identification and classification, and they will explore their implications for studies of racial inequality. What causes measures of race to change and why? Is race a fixed or a flexible characteristic of individuals? What characteristics or life events are associated with changes in racial identification? How do such changes affect not only survey research results but how we think about the relation between race and inequality? 

The investigators argue that racial hierarchy remains stable over time because race gets redefined: white people appear to be more successful in part because successful people become white, either through identification, external classification, or both. Penner and Saperstein will examine changes over time in racial self-identification and racial classification by interviewers for the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. By examining a range of socioeconomic variables, they will investigate how changes in racial self-identification and classification are related to, and perhaps even result from, changes in social position. They hypothesize that respondents who experience changes in their social position will also be more likely to experience changes in their racial self-identification and classification by others. For example, respondents who move to the suburbs are less likely to be seen as, or identify as, African American, and are more likely to be seen as, and identify as, white.



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