STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Governments, schools and companies all keep track of your race. The stats they collect are used to track the proportion of blacks and whites who graduate from school, for example. They tell us how many people identify themselves as Native American or Asian. They help us to measure health disparities between races. But there's a problem with all of those statistics and with the deeper way that we think about race. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to explain. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's the problem?
VEDANTAM: Well, there's an assumption that's built into all those tracking systems that you mentioned, Steve, and that assumption is that a person's race is fixed. If we figure out today that you're white, we expect that you will be white next year.
VEDANTAM: I spoke with Aliya Saperstein. She's a sociologist at Stanford University and, along with Andrew Penner and Jessica Kizer, she recently looked at a survey that tracks life changes among thousands of young men and women in the country. It's called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, sometimes abbreviated as NLSY. It's conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
INSKEEP: Longitudinal, meaning that they're tracking people over a very long period of time.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. And it's used to collect snapshots of economic wellbeing and social changes. Saperstein found that the racial classifications of people in the survey seemed to change over time.
ALIYA SAPERSTEIN: What our research challenges is the idea that the race of an individual is fixed. Twenty percent of the respondents in the NLSY survey experienced at least one change, and had the interviewer perceived them by race over the course of different observations.
INSKEEP: Are we talking here about mixed-race people who might have a strong genetic reason to be multiple races?
VEDANTAM: Now, that's a possibility, Steve. It's possible there are people who have ambiguous physical features and can be interpreted as being one race or the other. Saperstein tried to control for that - even after you eliminate people who might seem to be ambiguous, in terms of physical race, she found the effect persisted. Much more important, she found that if race was just ambiguous then you would expect that the changes in classifications would be fairly random.
VEDANTAM: That one year you might say someone is white, one year you might say someone is black. What she found was that the changes in classification were actually not random. They were driven by changes in the people's life circumstances and common racial stereotypes.
SAPERSTEIN: If someone went from being employed to being unemployed, or being out of prison to being in prison, or being off welfare to being on welfare, the interviewer was more likely to see the person as black - after they experienced that sort of downward mobility - than before.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You're saying you've got a guy, he's a lawyer, he's presumed to be white. He does something wrong, he goes to prison, he comes out of prison, he's a black man.
VEDANTAM: Well, I think this is what Saperstein is trying to say. She's not saying that happens with every lawyer and every person. But she's saying there's a tendency to sort of see race not just through physical characteristics, but through social characteristics.
INSKEEP: Meaning this is prejudice - its bias on some level.
VEDANTAM: Yes, it is. I mean we know that many Americans at some levels and strong stereotypes linking race with crime. I think what this research suggest is it's not just our perceptions of race that drive our stereotypes, but our stereotypes that drive our perceptions of race.
In another study, Saperstein looked at differences in how funeral directors listed the race of people who had died. And she found that when people had died as a result of homicide, funeral directors were more likely to list the person as being black, even when family members listed the person as belonging to another race.
There was another study where she found that if the dead person had died of cirrhosis, which is a disorder commonly caused by alcohol abuse, the funeral director was more likely to list the person as being Native American, even when family members listed the person as belonging to another race.
INSKEEP: Oh, because Indians or Native Americans, stereotypically, they have problems with alcohol. That's what the serotype says.
VEDANTAM: Exactly, so what does the suggesting is that we have profound stereotypes about how groups of people are supposed to behave. And those stereotypes drive our perceptions of who people are, not just how they behave.
INSKEEP: This is stunning. But the more you think about it, the more you realize this idea is kind of out there. And, in fact, people have talked about entire groups of people in society changing race. There was a book some years ago called "How the Irish Became White."
VEDANTAM: I think that's exactly the same idea, Steve. And the idea is that race is actually socially constructed. And this provides data for the theory at the individual level.
One fascinating thing that Saperstein has found is that it isn't just other people's perceptions of you that change. The survey that she followed also asked people to report their own race. And she found that when people went to prison, they became more likely to think of themselves as black. And that's because their minds were also subject to this very same stereotypes.
INSKEEP: You are saying that someone goes in, they have the prison experience - maybe they're mixed-race, maybe they look ambiguous, maybe they look white - but they're more likely to come out and say I'm a black man.
VEDANTAM: That is exactly what Saperstein is saying, Steve. And it's a troubling idea because we say we track people's race in order to address prejudice and disparities, in all the ways that you mentioned at the start of our conversation. But it turns out that the way we track race itself is subject to the very same prejudices.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam regularly joins us to talk about social science research. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. And, of course, you can always follow this program @morningedition and @nprinskeep and nprgreene.
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