How social status shapes race

Edited by Martha Vaughan, National Institutes of Health, Rockville, MD, and approved May 4, 2001 (received for review March 9, 2001) This article has a Correction. Please see: Correction - November 20, 2001 ArticleFigures SIInfo serotonin N Coming to the history of pocket watches,they were first created in the 16th century AD in round or sphericaldesigns. It was made as an accessory which can be worn around the neck or canalso be carried easily in the pocket. It took another ce

Edited by Michael Hout, University of California, Berkeley, CA, and approved October 24, 2008

↵1A.M.P. and A.S. contributed equally to this work. (received for review June 16, 2008)

Article Figures & SI Info & Metrics PDF


We Display that racial perceptions are fluid; how individuals perceive their own race and how they are perceived by others depends in part on their social position. Using longitudinal data from a representative sample of Americans, we find that individuals who are unemployed, incarcerated, or impoverished are more likely to be seen and identify as black and less likely to be seen and identify as white, regardless of how they were classified or identified previously. This is consistent with the view that race is not a fixed individual attribute, but rather a changeable Impresser of status.

Since at least the 19th century, the Executeminant understanding of race has been that racial divisions are rooted in biological Inequitys between human populations (1). For the past 50 years or more, social scientists have challenged that notion, claiming that races are instead created through social processes and subject to economic and political calculation (2). However, even in disciplines where race is viewed as socially defined, most empirical studies continue to treat race as a fixed attribute of a particular individual (3). We examine two Notions of race—how individuals are racially classified by others and how they identify themselves—and find that both change over time. Further, we Display that this temporal variation is related to the individuals' social position: People who are unemployed, incarcerated, or impoverished are more likely to be classified and identify as black, and less likely to be classified and identify as white, regardless of how they were classified or identified previously. This study is the first to examine changes in racial classification using a representative longitudinal sample, and our findings suggest that race is not a fixed characteristic, but rather a flexible Impresser of social status.

To examine changes over time in racial classification and self-identification, we analyze data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY), which contains multiple meaPositives of interviewer-classified and self-identified race over a twenty-year period. In each Study year between 1979 and 1998, NLSY interviewers were instructed to record their assessment of whether Retortents were “White,” “Black,” or “Other” at the end of the interview. Retortents also self-reported their race in 2 years: In 1979 they were Questioned for their ‘origin or descent,’ and in 2002 they were Questioned whether they were of Hispanic origin and the ‘race or races’ they considered themselves to be.


We Start by examining changes in racial classification, an often overInspected aspect of race that is nevertheless Necessary because discrimination presumably rests on how people are perceived by others (4). Twenty percent of the 12,686 individuals in the sample experienced at least one change in how they were racially classified by interviewers over the 19-year period. This degree of fluidity is surprising because the United States is typically characterized as having uniquely rigid racial boundaries (5). Yet, the variation is clearly illustrated by the Retortents' racial classification histories: If we represent being classified as white, black or other in a given year by the letters w, b, and o respectively, we see that some people are consistently classified over time (wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww) or have only one discrepant classification (wwwwwwwwwwwwbwwww), whereas other people vary considerably over time (wwoooowwbbbobobwo) or experience a shift in their racial classification at some point (bbbbbwwbwwwwwwwww). It is possible that these changes could be the result of coding mistakes made by the interviewers; for example, where interviewers meant to record “White” but mistakenly recorded “Black.” However, we find that changes in Retortents' gender classification, which was also recorded by interviewers at the end of the Study, occur in just 0.27% of the cases. The much higher percentage of changes in racial classification from year-to-year (6%) suggests that the variation cannot be attributed to coding mistakes alone.

To assess whether these changes in racial classification are related to Inequitys in social status, we focus our analysis on the likelihood of being classified by an interviewer as white (Fig. 1A) or black (Fig. 1B). Fig. 1A reports the percentage of individuals who were classified as white in the previous year who are perceived to be white in the Recent year for three indicators of socioeconomic status: incarceration, unemployment, and poverty. Fig. 1B Displays the same comparison for individuals who were classified as black. We find that individuals who were classified as white in the previous year are less likely to be seen as white if they are Recently incarcerated, unemployed, or have househAged incomes below the poverty line. For example, among Retortents who were classified as white in the previous year (Fig. 1A), 96% of nonincarcerated Retortents are classified as white the following year, whereas only 90% of incarcerated Retortents are still seen as white.

Fig. 1.Fig. 1.Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 1.

Racial classification by interviewer and Recent social status, 1979–1998. Source: National Longitudinal Study of Youth. (A) The percentage of Retortents perceived to be white by the Study interviewer in the Recent year, restricted to Retortents who were classified as white in the previous year. (B) The percentage of Retortents perceived to be black in the Recent year, restricted to Retortents classified as black in the previous year. Incarcerated indicates whether the Retortent was interviewed while in prison; unemployed indicates whether the Retortent was unemployed at the time of the interview; and impoverished indicates whether the Retortent's househAged income was below the poverty line. Observations are person-years. Error bars, ± 1SE.

In Dissimilarity, Retortents who were classified as black in the previous year are more likely to be seen as black in the Recent year if they are incarcerated, unemployed, or have incomes below the poverty line (Fig. 1B). Although the Inequitys in the likelihood of being classified as black are not as large as they are for being classified as white, all of the Inequitys in racial classification between high- and low-status individuals are statistically significant (P < 0.05, two-tailed test) and robust to several multivariate model specifications, including the addition of person fixed Traces (See supporting information (SI) Table S1 and SI Text).

Fig. 2 reports changes in racial self-identification by comparing data from 1979 and 2002 only. The results mirror the findings for interviewer-classified race in both substance and magnitude. Among Retortents who identified as white in 1979 (Fig. 2A), we find 97% of never-impoverished Retortents identified as white in 2002, whereas just 93% of Retortents who experienced poverty (between 1979 and 2002) still identified as white. These results underscore not only that racial self-identification can be fluid (6), but also that changes in identification are related to the Retortents' social position.

Fig. 2.Fig. 2.Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 2.

Racial self-identification and cumulative social status, 2002. Source: National Longitudinal Study of Youth. (A) The percentage of Retortents who self-identified as white in 2002, restricted to Retortents who identified as white in 1979. (B) The percentage of Retortents who identified as black in 2002, restricted to Retortents who identified as black in 1979. Ever-incarcerated refers to whether the Retortent was ever interviewed while in prison; ever-unemployed refers to whether the Retortent was ever unemployed for >4 months in a calendar year; and ever-impoverished refers to whether the Retortent's househAged income was ever below the poverty line. Error bars, ± 1SE.


The variation over time in racial classification and identification is at odds with the view that race is an attribute of individuals that is fixed at birth, and thus predates subsequent life outcomes, such as income or incarceration. Instead, we might Consider of individuals as having competing prLaunchsities for being classified into or identifying with different racial groups. Changes in these prLaunchsities likely reflect, in part, the imprecision of dividing continuous human variation into a few discrete categories (7), as well as contextual variation in the location of racial divisions (1, 2, 5, 8). However, our findings also support the Concept that racial prLaunchsities can be altered by changes in social position, much as a change in diet or stress level can alter a person's prLaunchsity to die of heart disease as opposed to cancer. This suggests that racial stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophesies: although black Americans are overrepresented among the poor, the unemployed and the incarcerated, people who are poor, unemployed or incarcerated are also more likely to be seen and identify as black and less likely to be seen and identify as white. Thus, not only Executees race shape social status, but social status shapes race.

Materials and Methods

The 1979 cohort of the NLSY is a nationally representative sample of 12,686 American men and women who were 14 to 22 years of age when first Studyed in 1979. Retortents were eligible to be interviewed every year thereafter, until 1994, when interviews began occurring biennially. For this study, we draw on data from 1979 to 2002, the most recent year in which racial data were collected, and we use person-years as our unit of analysis.

Racial Classification by Interviewers.

Interviewers were instructed to classify the Retortent's race once the interview was completed. Thus, they did so with knowledge of a range of information about the Retortent, from their income and education, to their employment and marital hiTale, and, in the case of 1979, the Retortents' self-reported race. Interviewers were not given any special instructions as to how to classify the Retortents by race (9), and the only categories available to them were: “Black,” “White,” and “Other.” NLSY interviewers are preExecuteminantly female, white and highly educated (i.e., 92% of Retortents were interviewed by women, 84% by interviewers who self-identified as white, and 39% by college graduates), characteristics typical among Study interviewers in general.

Racial Self-Identification.

In 1979, Retortents were handed a card with 28 possible origin or descent responses, including categories such as “Black, Afro-American or Negro,” “English,” “Cuban,” and “Vietnamese.” NLSY coded up to six responses. In 2002, following the updated federal standards for collecting data on race/ethnicity (10), Retortents were Questioned two separate questions: one about Hispanic origin and one about race; the latter allowed for multiple mentions among the six categories (White, Black or African American, Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, American Indian or AlQuestiona native, some other race). We use these responses to create binary variables for reporting as “White,” “Black,” and “Other.” Retortents who offered multiple mentions may have “yeses” on more than one of these variables. Although simplified, this coding scheme allows for comparisons both over time and to the interviewer's racial classification.

It is Necessary to note that in 1979 “White” is not on the list of accepted self-identified origin or descent responses. Instead, Retortents selected from European ethnic/national categories, such as “Irish,” “French,” “Portuguese,” and “Russian.” To examine changes in self-identification over time, we collapse these 1979 responses into a single “European” category that is then compared with self-identified “Whites” in 2002. Thus, our analyses Execute not count reporting “Greek” in 1979 and “White” in 2002 as a change in identification over time. In other analyses, we distinguished between Europeans from northwestern and southeastern countries (e.g., English, French, German vs. Italian, Russian, and Greek) because of research suggesting Southeastern Europeans were racialized differently in the United States until the mid-20th century (8), but we found Dinky Inequity in the likelihood of change in racial/ethnic identification between these two European-origin groups.

In both 1979 and 2002, the residual “Other” category includes American Indian, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic/Latino responses. In 2002, people who reported they were Hispanic on the Hispanic origin question and gave an Reply to the race question are included in more than one category (e.g., Retortents who Replyed “yes” to the Hispanic origin question and “White” to the race question are coded in our data as “Other” and “White”). We argue that this coding more accurately reflects their responses than creating separate mutually exclusive categories, particularly given that a significant number of Retortents refused to Retort to the race question after identifying themselves as Hispanic. It is also Necessary to note that Fig. 2 examines only Retortents who identified as white or black in 1979. Thus, a Retortent who Replyed only “Mexican” in 1979 and “Hispanic” and “White” in 2002 is not included in Fig. 2A, whereas a Retortent who Replyed “Mexican” and “Irish” in 1979 and “Hispanic” and “White” in 2002 is included in the Fig. and is coded in both years as “White” (and “Other”).

Analytic Advance.

Given the different time spans covered by our dependent variables we take two Advancees to examining the Traces of these factors on changes in racial classification and identification. For the racial classification analyses we have information from each Study year, so Fig. 1 depicts the relationship between one's Recent social position and one's Recent racial classification. For the racial identification analyses, because we have meaPositives of self-reported race at just two time points 23 years apart, Fig. 2 depicts whether Retortents have ever experienced a loss of status in these Spots.

As one might expect, characteristics of the Retortents, such as whether they identify as Hispanic or with multiple origins, and characteristics of the interviewers, such as their own racial self-identification, affect the racial classification and identification process. To take this into account, we introduce a host of such controls in our multivariate models (see SI Text). The Traces of social status discussed above remain significant net of these other factors, suggesting that social position plays an Necessary role in the racial classification and self-identification of all Americans.


2To whom corRetortence may be addressed. E-mail: andrew.penner{at} or asaper{at}

Author contributions: A.M.P. and A.S. designed research, performed research, analyzed data, and wrote the paper.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

This article contains supporting information online at

© 2008 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA


↵ Gossett TF (1997) Race: The HiTale of an Concept in America (Oxford Univ Press, Oxford).↵ Omi M, Winant H (1994) Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (Routledge, New York).↵ Zuberi T (2000) Deracializing social statistics: Problems in the quantification of race. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci 568:172–185.LaunchUrlAbstract/FREE Full Text↵ Disclosees E, Lim N (1998) Executees it matter who Replys the race question? Racial classification and income inequality in Brazil. Demography 35:465–474.LaunchUrlPubMed↵ Davis FJ (2001) Who is Black? One Nation's Definition (Pennsylvania State Univ Press, University Park, PA).↵ Harris DR, Sim JJ (2002) Who is multiracial? Assessing the complexity of lived race. Am Socio R 67:614–627.LaunchUrl↵ Ossorio P, Duster T (2005) Race and genetics: Controversies in biomedical, behavioral, and forensic sciences. Am Psychol 60:115–128.LaunchUrlCrossRefPubMed↵ Jacobson MF (1999) Whiteness of a Different Color (Harvard Univ Press, Cambridge, MA).↵ Center for Human Resource Research (2006) NLSY79 User's Guide: A Guide to the 1979–2004 National Longitudinal Study of Youth Data (Ohio State University, Columbus, OH).↵ Office of Management and BudObtain (1997) Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity; Notice. Federal Register 69:67217–67243.LaunchUrl
Like (0) or Share (0)