What a Stanford sociologist’s research on race can teach journalists

For me, one of the big perks of being at Stanford has been meeting and learning from scholars whose work could enrich journalism about race in America.

Many of them are thinking and writing about topics that I’m convinced would fascinate readers. In particular, their insights could be great additions to the tool kits of reporters charged with communicating the complicated ways race and racism affect the lives of black people.

One of these people is Aliya Saperstein, a professor of sociology who’s an expert on how and why people come to perceive racial differences and how this relates to social inequality.

Racial Mobility Book CoverAt the beginning of the winter quarter, Saperstein reached out to me to let me know that she’d be giving a talk on campus on her research and her book manuscript in progress. I enthusiastically agreed to attend. The topic was something she calls “racial mobility.” It’s the idea that, for some of us, the racial box other people place us into can change over the course of a lifetime.

That’s huge news. Why? Because, even among those who believe that race is a social construction and that the racial classifications of groups of people can shift over time, an individual’s race is almost always treated as if it’s set in stone.

But Saperstein argues that a person’s race should actually be treated as “both multidimensional and malleable.” She says researchers should think of it as something more similar to a person’s socioeconomic status than the country they’re born in.

Of course, this malleability isn’t random: Changes over time in the way some people’s race is perceived are “patterned in ways that are consistent with prevailing stereotypes and social inequality,” Saperstein said.

Many of her conclusions about racial mobility came from her examination of data from longitudinal studies in which respondents were interviewed — and racially classified — many times over a period of many years.

Most people were consistently classified as black or white. But for some, their classifications changed with different interviewers over time.

Why did this happen?

Changes or ambiguities in physical presentation might be one explanation; the interviews were conducted in person. But new information may also have influenced subsequent interviewers.

Getting married, earning a bachelor’s degree, or moving to the suburbs were developments that tended to “whiten” people — that is, a subsequent interviewer classifying them as white when a previous one had said they were black or ‘other’, Saperstein explained in her talk. Becoming an unmarried parent, losing a job, or being arrested tended to “blacken” people — a classification shift from white or other to black.

She also mentioned previous research indicating that people find it easier to categorize others they admire as white, and people they dislike as black. The implication is clear: This phenomenon is based in racist stereotypes, and also strengthens them, in a vicious, inequality-perpetuating cycle.

I was fascinated by Saperstein’s talk because, in my experience, writing about anything related to the malleable nature of racial identity can be really tricky.

I often worry that this risks suggesting to readers that race doesn’t matter. And I don’t think responsible journalists should ever let that view stand, even when it’s offered up by high-profile figures. To offer a couple of recent examples, think of Meryl Streep’s assertion that “we’re all African, really” when asked about the dearth of diversity in the film industry, or Bill Clinton’s downplaying of Barack Obama’s historic presidency because “we’re all mixed-race people.”

I believe it’s critical that journalists writing anything to do with race understand and be able to communicate to readers that, however malleable the idea of race may be, it has very real social consequences that aren’t a matter of opinion. The racial categories to which we’re assigned, based on how we look to others or how we identify ourselves, can determine real-life experiences. They can inspire hate, drive political outcomes, and even the difference between life and death. 

So, an important theme in Saperstein’s talk, from my perspective, was her insistence that “attending to social construction [of race] does not sidetrack us from the issues that really matter.” As she put it, “It’s not that everything is fluid. It’s that we’re interested in when and for whom race is fixed and when and for whom race is fluid.” We can do this, she says, “without losing sight of the remarkable persistence of racialized advantage and disadvantage in the United States.”

Saperstein insists that her “racial mobility” perspective can actually advance and enrich research on race and inequality. I think she’s right, and I’m convinced awareness of this concept and others like it could do the same for journalism.