Race: A Product of Environment

A recently released study by Andrew Penner, UC Irvine assistant sociology professor, and Alya Saperstein, sociologist from the University of Oregon, finds that racial divisions are not fixed at birth via biological differences. Rather, the study shows that races are created through social processes and are subject to economic and political calculation.
Published in the Dec. 16 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), the study, entitled “How Social Status Shapes Race,” is a 19-year study of 12,686 individuals. Researchers examined how these individuals identified themselves as well as how they were racially classified by others.
“Given the important role that race plays in society I think it is important to understand how it works,” Penner said.
Working with the widely acknowledged belief that race has important implications for inequality, Penner stated that they were interested in determining whether the opposite could also be true, whether the current social inequalities, based simply off of varying life circumstances, had significant implications as well.
Looking to see if life experiences altered racial perception, Penner and Saperstein used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to conduct their study. Interviewers were asked to record the subject’s self assessments as well as assess the individuals themselves as black, white or other. With 20 percent of the sample population experiencing at least one change in how they were racially classified over the years, the study confirmed that racial perception is relative to temporal variation which brings with it a variation, in social status. Hence, “Not only does race shape social status, but social status shapes race.”
“Socially speaking, no one is black, or white or Asian or Latino; we are perceived to be a certain way, and identify in certain ways, based on our life experiences and widely held stereotypes about what people should do and how we believe people behave,” Penner said.
Regardless of their original classification or identification, “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,” the study reported.
Basically, successful people are more likely to be seen as white and unsuccessful people are more likely to be seen as black, Penner stated.
With the United States typically characterized as having “uniquely rigid racial boundaries,” researchers were surprised with the fluidity they found in racial perception over time.
However, the study reports that the amount of change suggests that racial stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies, much the same as a change in diet or stress levels can alter an individual’s susceptibility to dying of heart disease rather than cancer.
Amid discussion of genetics and race and whether people can be grouped based on similar strings of amino acids, which renders individuals permanent members of the race they were born into, Penner said that the study provides important insight.
“Not only do people’s race change over the course of their lives, it changes in response to gains and losses in social status,” Penner said. “It’s as if today’s racial inequality — in income, education, wealth, employment, etc. — sets the bar for how people will be judged in the future. And yesterday’s inequality sets the bar for how people are being judged today.”
Little research exists that studies race within the context that Penner and Saperstein examined. Traditional racial or ethnic studies look at race as “something that you are … a fixed characteristic of individuals that you have from when you are born to when you die,” said Penner. However, Penner and Saperstein’s study highlights that what people do and what people expect you to do must also be taken into account when determining one’s race.
With race and social status so closely linked, Penner suggests that the problems to be addressed are not only changing the stereotypes that exist about different racial groups but also changing material circumstances to create a more egalitarian society.