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Polco News & Knowledge

Study says stereotypes drive perception of race

Shankar Vadantam is full of great social science insights and his recent interview on NPR with Steve Inskeep tells a fascinating tale about the malleability of self reported race.

You can see the entire interview here:


Reporting on the work of Aliya Saperstein and others, Vadantam revealed that, “What [Saperstein] found was that the changes in [race] classification were … driven by changes in the people's life circumstances and common racial stereotypes.”

For example, in a survey of youth, someone who was once coded by an interviewer as white, later was reported to be black if he or she had gone to prison, become unemployed or received public assistance. Not in every case or for every person, but where there was some ambiguity of racial appearance or background, some of the descriptions of race changed.

Such a finding argues for the social influences on what we usually assume are immutable human characteristics. They support the twist on the old adage, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

In survey research, National Research Center regularly asks respondents to identify their race and this research suggests that there can be some changes for people in their self-perceptions depending on their life circumstances. Fortunately, such shifts are not likely to undermine the central use of race information in our survey research because we use aggregate population figures to adjust our surveys to ensure the right “volume” of resident voice from different community groups.

National Research Center regularly adjusts race and ethnic voices to reflect those of the entire community. For example, if 30{7d2d4cb14c544bbeb3cd4763dc2b1aa4e79f5bb51403ad6dac1e84ac9d980b0d} of a community’s population is reported to be African American, then African Americans among our survey respondents represent 30{7d2d4cb14c544bbeb3cd4763dc2b1aa4e79f5bb51403ad6dac1e84ac9d980b0d} of our survey sample.  These adjustments work even if there is some shifting in self-report over time because the adjustments are broad-based and not intended to fine tune every last note in a chorus.


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