Can Losing Your Job Make You Black?

Can Losing Your Job Make You Black?

Boston Review

Aliya Saperstein, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Stanford University

Most Americans think a person’s race is fairly obvious and unchanging; we know it the minute we meet him or her. Similarly, most academic research also treats race as fixed and foreordained. A person’s race comes first and then his or her experiences, education, job, neighborhood, income, and well-being follow. My research with sociologist Andrew Penner on how survey respondents were classified by race over the course of their lives, calls into question this seemingly obvious “fact.”

The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth has been following a group of about 12,000 Americans since they were teenagers and young adults in 1979. From 1979 to 1998, the survey interviewers had to identify the race of the people they interviewed, even when those people had been repeatedly interviewed. At the end of each session, interviewers recorded whether they thought a respondent was “Black,” “White,” or “Other.” Here is the surprise: nearly 20 percent of respondents experienced at least one change in their recorded race over those 19 years.

These changes were not random, as one might expect if the interviewers were just hurrying to finish up or if the data-entry clerks were making mistakes. The racial classifications changed systematically, in response to what had happened to the respondent since the previous interview…

Read the entire article here.

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