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Dec-08-2008 16:32printcomments

Black and White is Not Always a Clear Distinction

Socioeconomics and incarceration are factors in defining race, says a University of Oregon sociologist.

"The Burden"

(EUGENE, Ore.) - Is race defined by appearance, or can a person also be colored by socioeconomic status? A new study finds that Americans who are unemployed, incarcerated or impoverished today are more likely to be classified and identified as black, by themselves or by others, regardless of how they were seen -- or self identified -- in the past.

The findings suggest race may not be as simple as something a person is born with -- that it is possibly tightly intertwined with social status, says University of Oregon sociologist Aliya Saperstein, who worked with Andrew M. Penner of the University of California, Irvine.

The study -- begun long before Barack Obama became the nation's first black president-elect -- appears online this week ahead of regular publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It is timely, Saperstein said, because many Americans are raising questions about whether Obama -- the child of a black Kenyan man and a white American woman -- could be considered white because of his successes.

"What I find fascinating about Obama's case is that people are asking questions about it," Saperstein said. "In the past, it wouldn't have been a question what he was, or how we should talk about him. There would have been no debate.

"We do need to take these issues into account when we study race," she said. "Race is not something you are. It is a very complex combination of factors that certainly does include things like skin tone, hair type and ancestry, but it also includes social status and our own stereotypes about people. Our study suggests that part of how we determine who is white is based on our assumptions about what white people do or what black people do. There is probably more mobility in our society by race than we acknowledge, because socioeconomic mobility often turns into racial mobility, where we define successful people as white and unsuccessful people as black."

The findings came from a comprehensive review of data compiled for the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which began in 1979 and continues today tracking the same individuals. Saperstein and Penner focused on 1979 and 2002, comparing how participants identified themselves in both years and how interviewers labeled them each year between 1979 and 1998.

They found that 20 percent of the 12,686 respondents had at least one change in an interviewer's perception of their racial status during that span. Most interviews had occurred face-to-face, but the researchers found similar results when interviews were conducted by telephone.

The biggest change noted was that individuals initially classified by interviewers as white were less likely to maintain that classification if they were later jailed, became unemployed or had been living below the poverty line. Researchers found that 96 percent of initially classified white respondents who were not incarcerated later still were identified as white, but that only 90 percent of whites who had been incarcerated in later years were still seen as white.

Nearly the same results held for self-identified classification, the researchers found, with 97 percent of whites in 1979 still saying they were white in 2002 if they had never been impoverished. However, just 93 percent of initially self-classified whites still said they were white in 2002 if they had fallen into poverty between the two years.

Respondents who self identified as black in 1979 and then went to prison were more likely to again say they were black in 2002 than were those who didn't go to prison in between, Saperstein said. "Those who went to prison were more likely to stay black, but those who didn't go to prison might move themselves to another identity."

Saperstein and Penner argue that racial identification can be altered by changes in social position, "much as a change in diet or stress level can alter a person's propensity to die of heart disease as opposed to cancer." In their conclusion, they write: "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 seen and identify as black and less likely to be seen and identify as white. Thus, not only does race shape social status, but social status shapes race."

About the University of Oregon

The University of Oregon is a world-class teaching and research institution and Oregon's flagship public university. The UO is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization made up of 62 of the leading public and private research institutions in the United States and Canada. Membership in the AAU is by invitation only. The University of Oregon is one of only two AAU members in the Pacific Northwest.

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PS December 9, 2008 3:50 pm (Pacific time)

HR my comments are made as per this site's requirements. I have noticed that others that use anonymous handles who agree with your positions never seem to receive this level of inquiry. Would you agree with that observation? As it is, my comments were about the above article, which are appropriate. My background in this type of research (a while back) had been limited to writing critiques on their design and methodology, not their hypothesis(es) and conclusions, the latter two were pursued in an open forum setting, e.g. classroom discussions. I first became exposed to these types of studies as an undergraduate in cultural anthropology, sociology and geography coursework. Have you much background in cultural geography? I love the discipline of Geography, so many are unfamiliar with the nature of this social science, which also includes physical scientific areas. Race is a dynamic area of study, don't you think?

Henry Ruark December 9, 2008 12:03 pm (Pacific time)

P.S.: You wrote: "Sometimes what we think is so, is not always so." That's one of few lines that make any sense in yours --does it also mean some recognition that denial plays huge role in what those affected are able to finally recognize as immutable reality ? Re no-ID, and assume you ARE really named "Percy", your understandings come from your admitted militaristic career, and thus require certain sure remedies for any thinking person. IF you are NOT "Percy", with reason to hide easy content analysis here, why sub PS for former designation ?? Seems to me Percy even refused to name source of his claimed "business degree",when told we could and would check it with institution and year claimed. My momma done told me never to speak alone with odd character seeking dialog but withholding name and rest of identity. She was inexplicit re what might happen...

PS December 9, 2008 8:58 am (Pacific time)

Certainly all studies on race can be benefical to society, and the more rigorous the investigative design the better. There is considerable value when one has several control groups when investigating the behavorial aspects of different races. For example having different control groups in sub-Saharan Africa and Western society locations for comparative purposes would, in my opinion, be essential. Many of you have probably noticed how racial/ethnic humor has often generated bad feelings. Should this be a two-way street? I believe so. Recently New York Governor David Patterson said this: "My real goal is to follow in Barack Obama's footsteps and be president of the United States, because once you go black, you don't go back." Now what would happen if a caucasian said just the opposite in reference to someone of a different race or ethnic group? Actually we do have many examples where humor like this has ended many careers. I belive Gov. Patterson may have just seen his political fortunes become damaged with various groups of some voters. Regarding the above article, you have many very poor and uneducated groups of people who have very low crime rates compared to other groups here in western society, ergo, the value of having control groups in indigenous locations for comparative reasons. Sometimes what we think is so, is not always so.

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