The Social Construction of Race: Aliya Saperstein

[MUSIC PLAYING] I think it’s helpful to think
about whiteness and blackness as poles of a spectrum. Over the course of
our history, whiteness is the pole of privilege. So high income, education. Blackness, on the other hand,
is associated with stigma. It’s marginalized,
disadvantaged, the opposite. So less income, poverty,
welfare receipt, incarceration, for example. And so these are the
things that we associate with the different groups. And it makes it even more
interesting then to see, if we assume that
race is not fixed, if someone can be classified
in one group or the other or somewhere in between across
the course of their lives, it actually tells us something
about the relationship between race and inequality. In order to demonstrate
that race is not fixed, I actually had to use the data
that was currently available, because if nobody believes
that race is flexible, no one wants to collect data. And so there’s a
bit of a catch-22. You have to convince people
that race is flexible using data that
typically doesn’t think that this is the case. I rely pretty heavily on
the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and, in
particular, the 1979 cohort. So these are American men and
women who were ages 14 to 22 at the time that they
were first interviewed. And then the interviews
follow them across their life. We know what their income is,
and what their education is, in terms of how many years
of school they’ve completed, and what degrees
they’ve acquired. And all of these are what
we would consider measures of socioeconomic status. They’re also asked to
classify the respondent by race using the categories
white, black, and other. We hypothesize
that if people were aware of racial disparities
in these factors, or had stereotypes about who
was more likely to go to prison, or who was more likely
to receive welfare, or who was more likely
to lose their job, that those assumptions
might also then affect how they classified the
respondents when they were asked to assign them a race. For example, with unemployment,
it was measured in terms of whether or not
the respondent had been out of work for at
least four months in the year prior to the survey. And what we see is that
if the interviewer heard that the respondent
had been out of work, this did appear to affect
their classification. So for example, person 343 is
seen as black 33% of the time prior to experiencing
unemployment and 100% of the time after
they experienced unemployment. So it’s not just that race
is changing over time, but that it’s
changing in ways that are clearly related to these
changes in social status. So that once you
experience unemployment, it pulls you away from
whiteness and pushes you towards blackness
in terms of the way that other people perceive you. Over the course
of the whole span, so the 19 years of the
survey, 20% of the respondents experienced at least one change
in how they’re classified by the interviewer by race. The relationship between
race and inequality is not just about when
people change race, but also about when their
race stays stable from one year to the next. Another racial stereotype
in the United States is related to contact with
the criminal justice system. And this new survey had
a measure of whether or not the respondents
had been arrested since the previous
wave of the survey. So for example, if someone
had been previously classified as black by the interviewer
and had reported an arrest since the previous
survey wave, they were more likely
to be classified as black by the interviewer
again in the subsequent year. At the same time,
if someone had not been classified as black
in the previous survey year and they’d experienced an arrest
in between the two surveys, they were more likely
to be classified as black by the interviewer
in the subsequent years. So people stay black when
they’ve experienced contact with the criminal
justice system, and they switch to black when
they’ve experienced contact with the criminal
justice system. So the association between
blackness and crime is maintained. In order to confirm the
results from the surveys, my colleague and I teamed up
with some social psychologists to run an experiment. The experiment asked people to
classify the faces that they see as either white or black. We varied the
faces as a spectrum from the most stereotypically
white face to the most stereotypically black face. We also dressed these
faces either in a suit or in a kind of
T-shirt and coveralls to emphasize high
status and low status. And it uses a novel
kind of software that tracks mouse movements. So we were both interested
in what category they chose when they saw
these faces, but also interested in the
actual trajectory that the mouse took as
they moved either up and to the left or
up and to the right. So you could use the
x/y-coordinates of the mouse to, in a sense, see
them thinking about the categorisation process. The video depicts the
average mouse trajectories of classifications for the exact
same face when the subject saw the man in the suit. They were more
likely to go directly toward the corner of the
screen that corresponded to the white category. In contrast, when they saw the
same face wearing the T-shirt and coveralls, the
mouse trajectory veered ever so slightly
towards the black category even when they ultimately
selected the white category. They’re taking into account not
only the physical information about the person’s
face, but also the status information that
was implied by their clothing. So the stereotype of
a higher status person wearing a business suit as
somehow being more white is visible in these
mouse trajectories. When we study
inequality, we often think about race
as something that’s an input into the system. So you’re born white, you’re
born black, you’re born Asian, and that that affects the kinds
of opportunities and outcomes that you can expect
in your life. That’s certainly true and
we have lots of research to demonstrate that. But we also need
to think about race as an output from these systems. So that once you’ve
experienced upward mobility or downward mobility,
that then reflects back on how people
perceive you by race. It isn’t stable over time. We can’t simply talk about
gaps in wages between whites and blacks or gaps in
test scores between whites and blacks as if those are two
separate, mutually exclusive groups of people. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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