11 April 2006
Race is a surprisingly malleable construct, though it’s usually taken as fixed in statistical models. In a recent paper with Nicholas Christakis (Widowhood and Race, American Sociological Review Vol 71(1), 2006) I had to engage changing racial responses head on.
Assorted previous research has shown that people may change their racial self-description over time because they are multiracial, when they marry somebody of a different racial group, or – not to be neglected – because the answer choices in surveys may change over time.
Most people think that unstable or changing racial self-identification is an issue largely confined to a small group of multiracial individuals. This is a country, after all, of the one-drop rule. But research, including our own, shows that that isn’t so.
In a supplementary analysis of the 2001 Census Quality Survey (CQI), we showed that the racial self-identification of “whites" is also surprisingly unstable. The CQI asks more than 50,000 respondents twice within the span of just a few months to identify their own race. Once they were allowed to select only one race, and the other time they were given the option of selecting multiple races (this gets at the difference between the old and the new Census race questions). The answers were then matched to individual responses from the official 2000 Census.
Depending on whether we compared between consecutive responses to the same race question on the Census and the CQS, or between the different questions asked in the two waves of the CQS, and whether we treat “Hispanic" as a category distinct from black and white, the agreement between answers for whites ranged from 95.6 to 97.5. We obtained really similar answers for blacks.
Meaning, between 2 and 5 percent of people who used to identify as white, would call themselves either something else or a mixture of races when given the chance. And the percentage of “whites" who will change their racial self-description as a function of question wording is about the same as the percentage of “blacks" who will do likewise.