Changes in social standing such as falling below the poverty line or going to jail made people more likely to be perceived as black and less likely to be seen as white, researchers say.
For example, 10% of people previously described as white were reclassified as belonging to another race if they became incarcerated. But if they stayed out of jail, 4% were reclassified as something other than white.
The effect has staying power. People who were perceived as white and then became incarcerated were more likely to be perceived as black even after they were released from prison, Penner said.
The racial assumptions affected self-identity as well. Survey participants were asked to state their own race when the study began in 1979 and again in 2002, when the government streamlined its categories for race and ethnicity.
Of the people who said they were white in 1979 and stayed out of jail, 95% said they were white in 2002. Among those who were incarcerated at some point, however, only 81% still said they were white in 2002.
The results underscore "the pervasiveness of racial stratification in society," said Emeka. "The fact that both beholders and the observers of blackness attach negative associations to blackness speaks volumes to the continuing impact of racial stratification in U.S. society."
Below: "Poor Indian Children" by Edward S. Curtis.