Color Blindness: Not Seeing Race

Juan Silva

HUMANS ARE not chameleons, yet the color of their skin may change—in the eyes of the beholder—depending on their social and economic status. That was the surprising, disturbing revelation recently published by Aliya Saperstein after she mined the data from a study of young Americans begun by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1979. Over a period of two decades, 12,686 young men and women met face to face each year with interviewers who asked them about their lives. At the end of the session, the interviewers ticked off a box that said whether the subject was "white," "black," or "other." But from year to year, interviewers actually changed the racial category of many subjects they had interviewed before. About 20 percent of the respondents were reclassified at some point. Saperstein, who analyzes the roots of prejudice at Stanford's Clayman Center for Gender Research, draws a direct correlation between what the interviewers learned about the employment and education of the people they were interviewing and the race to which they assigned them. Unemployed men, for instance, were more likely to be "black," as were single mothers. Suburbanites of either sex were more likely to be "white."