Racial Identity Shifts With Social Status

Who is seen as black or white can change over time, study finds
By Ambreen Ali,  Newser User
Posted Dec 9, 2008 11:33 AM CST
Barack Obama's mother is classified as white, and his father black, leaving his racial identity up to social construction.   (AP Photo/Obama Presidential Campaign)
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(Newser) – Racial identity isn't set at birth—it's a malleable perception that changes with one's social status, a university study has found. Over 23 years, 12,700 people were asked to identify themselves and others as black or white. One-fifth switched their answers over time, often deeming people black if they hit setbacks like incarceration or poverty, USA Today reports.

The nation's first "black" president—who was born as white as he is black—highlights the social factors involved in defining race. "The fact that people are asking 'Why can't he be white?' has to do with his social status. They wouldn't be asking that of someone who was not in his social position," says the study's co-author.