Most social scientists agree that racial differences come not just from biology, but also from changing social realities. In the 20th century, categories of race in the United States were redefined across many dimensions – the children of Italian, Slavic, Irish, and Jewish immigrants came to be seen as “whites”, Hispanics became their own ethnicity straddling the boundaries of race, and Chinese, Indian, and Japanese-Americans came to be classified in their own broad “Asian” racial category. These processes reflected large-scale economic, political, and ideological shifts in our society, such as the upward mobility and cultural assimilation of European migrants.
Less recognized is that even as large-scale social processes redefine and blur the historical boundaries of racial groups, individuals also may shift in and out of racial categories over their lifetime. A new article in the American Journal of Sociology by Aliya Saperstein and Andrew Penner looks at the process of “racial fluidity” and finds that an astonishing one fifth of individuals in the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) experienced at least one change in racial classification over a 19-year period. These changes were not random. Negative life events, such as incarceration, unemployment, and divorce increased the probability of being identified as “black” in a successive year, while positive outcomes increased the probability of being identified as “white.” Often these changes were short-lived – and people would resume their former racial classification after a year or two, but in some cases the changes were long lasting over adulthood.
The study authors take advantage of the fact that the NLSY is a long-running panel that takes repeated measurements of individual’s race. The race is primarily assessed by an interviewer, coded at the end of the interview, thus “we have a classification colored by the respondent’ s answers during the survey interview.” Individuals also self-assessed their race in 1979 and 2002. Both self-assessed race and interviewer-assessed race change over time. One might worry that changes in interviewer-assessed race is an artifact of coding error (checking the wrong box one time), rather than a true reflection of the respondent’s perceived race. However, changes in racial category are correlated with life transitions in a manner consistent with the idea that perceived race reflects social status, and second, race changes much more year-to-year than interviewer-coded sex (which could also be accidentally miscoded).
What is happening? The author’s suggest that interviewers form judgments about the person that correspond to racial stereotypes (such as being unemployed). When there is ambiguity in the visual cues, the interviewer will err on the side of the racial category that matches their own preconceived notion. This may seem far-fetched, but it lines up with social science research that visual cues are sensitive to social context. Lab experiments show that a light-skinned African American is more likely to be perceived as “black” if he is shown with an afro hairstyle, or wearing a janitor uniform rather than a business suit. People of mixed ancestry are more likely to be perceived as white if they are in a higher social position.
This study should cause us to reconsider some important assumptions about race. First, it seems to illustrate that the phenomenon of “passing for white”, which has been described in several unusual cases (such as creole-born New York Times writer Anatole Broyard) may actually be more widespread, at least for periods of people’s lives. If racial fluidity is a real, and not unusual occurrence, it could lead us to draw misleading inferences about the contribution of race to social and economic inequality – we may overstate the contribution of race, since people classified as black are already more likely to be socially marginal to people with otherwise identical appearances. As the authors put it, race is both an output and an input in the stratification process. Unfortunately, this is a problem that gets buried in social science research. Apart from the NLSY, only one other major longitudinal survey (AddHealth) collects repeated measures of race over time, so we often draw inferences based on a “snapshot” of a person’s race in their lifetime, usually when they enter a survey.
The study argues that race is socially constructed in important ways, but that process of social construction is not neutral. It is a powerful shaper of life prospects:
“Race, whether viewed as being fundamentally biological, macrosocial, or interactional, remains real because it has important consequences for peoples’ life chances. Our results show that racial divisions, like other aspects of social structure, do not simply happen to people; racial inequality is actively (if sometimes unintentionally) reproduced in everyday interactions.”