A person's race is not fixed but can change over time, research shows.
Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Aliya Saperstein, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, found that the race of about one in five of those surveyed had at least one change in their race.
Saperstein spoke with National Public Radio about her research for a segment that aired Tuesday morning.
"What our research challenges," she said, "is this idea that the race of an individual is fixed. Twenty percent of the respondents in the NLSY survey experienced at least one change [in their race classification] over the course of different observations."
The NLSY tracks the same people over a long period of time. The race of those participating in the survey is recorded as it is perceived by the interviewer.
Race is socially constructed. There is no such thing as a "race gene" that identifies people as being of different races. Rather, the human brain subconsciously perceives people to be of different races based upon certain physical characteristics, such as skin color, hair type and nose shape. These perceptions can change over time.
What is even more interesting about Saperstein's findings, though, is that changes in race were correlated with changes in respondent's life circumstances. Those who went from being employed to unemployed, were sent to prison or went on welfare, were more likely to be classified as black after their lives took a turn for the worse.
In an study published in the March 2014 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Saperstein, along with coauthors Andrew Penner, assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley, and Jessica Kizer, a graduate student in Sociology at UC-Irvine, found that those who are arrested are more likely to be classified as black after their encounters with law enforcement.
"Results indicate even one arrest significantly increases the odds of subsequently being classified as black, and decreases the odds of being classified as white or Asian," they wrote. "This implies a broader impact of increased policing and mass incarceration on racialization and stereotyping, with consequences for social interactions, political attitudes, and research on inequality."