Does incarceration make people black?

by on April 5, 2010 at 7:43 am in Data Source, Economics | Permalink

In a paper in Social Problems, Saperstein and Penner find that there is a surprising amount of variability in racial identification in the NLSY.  Some of this variation is due to error or other random factors but some of it also appears to be systematic.  In particular, the authors find that if someone has been incarcerated they are more likely to self-identify as black as well as to be independently identified as black.  As the authors put it

Results show that respondents who have been incarcerated are more
likely to identify and be seen as black, and less likely to identify
and be seen as white, regardless of how they were perceived or
identified previously. This suggests that race is not a fixed
characteristic of individuals but is flexible and continually negotiated
in everyday interactions.

Here is a key table.  In the first column is the respondent's self-identification, European or Black, in 1979.  Thus 95% of the people who identified as European in 1979 and who were not incarcerated between 1979 and 2002 identified themselves as White in 2002.  In other words, racial identification for the non-incarcerated was quite stable.  But only 80% of the people who identified as European in 1979 and who were incarcerated between 1979 and 2002 identified themselves as White in 2002.  Thus incarceration appears to affect how people identify themselves.

The result is surprising at first but makes sense once one sees it as a natural extension of Akerlof and Kranton's work on identity.

RaceID

Note that there are some issues with the data since the precise
questions asked and options given changed over time (hence the change
from "European descent" to "White")–nevertheless, the differences
conditioning on incarceration appear to be robust–but see the paper
for more.

Hat tip Gabriel Rossman.

Cyrus April 5, 2010 at 8:07 am

The magnitude of the change is small enough that the result could hold only within that subpopulation whose phenotype is ambiguous enough that they can plausibly present themselves either way.

dearieme April 5, 2010 at 8:33 am

“This suggests that race …is flexible and continually negotiated in everyday interactions”: at least for mulatto criminals.

cournot April 5, 2010 at 8:53 am

Surely dearieme is right. To argue that race is truly flexible (as opposed to being flexible only on some narrow margin for those of mixed heritage or who are physically able to “pass” as black), you would have to ask yourself whether someone who is visibly European to 100% of observers, has no ancestors who could remotely be called black, and does not have dark skin or other physical characteristics typically associated with blacks could successfully and easily identify in the prison population as black. [I suppose a good con man might be able to pull it off, but it would doubtful.]

Dokemion April 5, 2010 at 9:21 am

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anon April 5, 2010 at 9:40 am

And, unless you believe in creationism, 60,000 years is not even a blip in the age of the earth.

Peter April 5, 2010 at 9:53 am

To argue that race is truly flexible (as opposed to being flexible only on some narrow margin for those of mixed heritage or who are physically able to “pass” as black), you would have to ask yourself whether someone who is visibly European to 100% of observers, has no ancestors who could remotely be called black, and does not have dark skin or other physical characteristics typically associated with blacks could successfully and easily identify in the prison population as black.

I don’t know about prison, but a few people have done this in other contexts. Politics, for example: Representative G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), who actually is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Ernest Morial, mayor of New Orleans in the 1970’s.

John April 5, 2010 at 11:38 am

This study has issues that I doubt have been accounted for and that render its results pretty meaningless. Imagine a person has a 50% chance of responding ‘black’ or ‘white’ to that question, both on the first polling and the second polling. Imagine that being this type of person gets you lumped in with black people as far as being a target for incarceration (would this really be shocking?). Recall that black people are many many times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.

This means that when you go around incarcerating people you’re essentially filtering out people that respond to this question non-deterministically and putting in them in the ‘incarcerated’ column. Then some of them change their answer. What a shock!

Among people that said they were black the first time, there should be no bias as long as people who respond ambivalently have the same incarceration rate as black people in general.

Unless this study has some hidden way of dealing with this, this could account for almost all of the effect.

Gabriel Rossman April 5, 2010 at 1:00 pm

dearieme, tyler, and cournot,
see pages 108-109 of the article where they show that the results are robust to kicking hispanics and people who indicated mixed race in early waves. i think the results would be interesting even if they were limited to people with inherently plastic identity, but the weird thing is that it seems to go beyond such an intuitive scope condition.

john,
read the study, they deal with all that sort of thing about as well as is possible

ryan,
yes, it’s panel data from NLSY

Steve Sailer April 5, 2010 at 5:39 pm

One obvious cause is prison rape.

The report “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons” by Human Rights Watch found:

“Past studies have documented the prevalence of black on white sexual aggression in prison.(213) These findings are further confirmed by Human Rights Watch’s own research. Overall, our correspondence and interviews with white, black, and Hispanic inmates convince us that white inmates are disproportionately targeted for abuse.(214) Although many whites reported being raped by white inmates, black on white abuse appears to be more common. To a much lesser extent, non-Hispanic whites also reported being victimized by Hispanic inmates.”

http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2001/prison/

Thus, if you are of mixed race descent, you are less likely to be raped in prison if you join a black or Latino gang than if you tell other inmates that you are white.

Steve Sailer April 5, 2010 at 6:22 pm

In general, a dogma among American intellectuals is that due to racism, it’s better to be white than mixed and better to be mixed than black.

Yet, among people who have a choice in the matter, we largely see the opposite.

For example, the President of the United States, who was raised by his white half of the family (at considerable cost to them) but was abandoned by his black father as an infant, recently sat down with his 2010 Census form. He had the option of honoring his white mother, recently deceased white grandmother, and white grandfather by marking himself down as both black and white. This would have been in keeping with the cultural norms of his Hawaiian upbringing, where he was seen at his Honolulu prep school as “just another mixed kid.”

But, the President refused to do that, marking himself as only black.

Steve Sailer April 5, 2010 at 6:39 pm

It’s quite possible that Barack Obama didn’t put himself down as “black” on his college applications when he was at Punahou Prep. After all, he wound up at unprestigious Occidental.

Yet, after a couple of years at Oxy smoking dope, drinking, and changing his name from “Barry” to “Barack,” he suddenly transferred to an Ivy League university.

What happened? One possibility is that “Barry Obama” from Honolulu sounded Japanese to admissions officers, so he didn’t get affirmative action brownie points on his applications. At Oxy, though, he wised up to how the system is rigged, so he put down on his transfer application that he was “Barack Obama, black” and cruised into Columbia.

Indeed, Obama’s 1994 memoir “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” reads like vastly padded Harvard Law School application essay about how black he is.

Steve Sailer April 5, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Latin American cultures, such as Puerto Rico and Brazil, have very different approaches to race than the U.S.. Generalizing from Latin America to America’s prisons is the wrong approach. Instead, you need to think about prison gangs and in Who?-Whom? terms about prison rape

Steve Sailer April 5, 2010 at 7:04 pm

It’s not unknown for leaders of Latino street gangs in Los Angeles to be completely white-looking fellows with white names.

For example, perhaps the most brutal leader of any L.A. street gang in recent years was Timothy McGhee, boss of the Toonerville Mexican gang, now on death row for three of the dozen or more murders attributed to him. McGhee, whose charismatic hold on his underlings was compared by cops to Charles Manson’s, has the eagle and snake from the Mexican flag tattooed on the back of his otherwise white-looking head (the most painful spot). He is said to have killed one young man just because he felt there wasn’t room in his Atwater Village neighborhood for two people with the same nickname: “Guero” for “fair-skinned.”

If you live in LA County and you like the street gang life, you pretty much have to join a non-white gang because there are virtually no white gangs left, other than Armenian Power.

For a picture of Timothy McGhee, Mexican Mafia leader, see:

http://www.vdare.com/sailer/100207_diversity.htm

Steve Sailer April 5, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Gabriel Rossman points out that Saperstein and Penner’s paper came up with the same explanation I did that black on white abuse in prison drives inmates who can identify as minority to do so, while those who can’t form white gangs. Here’s a passage from page 95 of Saperstein and Penner’s article:

” * Descriptions of prison life from the 1970s (when NLSY respondents were just beginning to experience incarceration) suggest that black inmates were dominant in the social order, even when they did not hold a decisive numerical advantage. Many studies from this era emphasize that white prisoners were relatively unorganized and thus prone to exploitation by their fellow inmates, and that assaults typically involved a black aggressor and white victim (see Jacobs 1979 for a review). More recent studies note the organization of white prisoners into white power gangs and increasing racial fragmentation along both inter- and intraracial lines (Hunt et al. 1993). From these accounts of the racial hierarchy within prisons, we might expect that inmates’ racial identification would change as a conscious attempt to find safety in their new surroundings.”

Ricardo April 6, 2010 at 5:06 am

Not surprisingly, the link between prison rape and white inmates forming scary-sounding white gangs as defense is seldom publicized.

Prison rape itself is rarely publicized except as a punchline on late-night comedy shows or else in reports of civil liberties or human rights groups. It’s very rare to see any kind of serious treatment of the issue in any mainstream publication or TV show.

But the link is right and is well-known to anyone who has seriously followed the issue.

Outside of prison, on the other hand, white racist groups tend to be made up of losers and misfits. These aren’t people in need of protection. They are people who need something to do besides playing video games in their parents’ house all day.

Ricardo April 6, 2010 at 5:25 am

It’s quite possible that Barack Obama didn’t put himself down as “black” on his college applications when he was at Punahou Prep. After all, he wound up at unprestigious Occidental.

A classic example of “begging the question.”

Yet, after a couple of years at Oxy smoking dope, drinking, and changing his name from “Barry” to “Barack,” he suddenly transferred to an Ivy League university.

Columbia University today has an undergrad student body that is about 8% black. I’m pretty sure you have to do more than put down “black” on your transfer application to get admitted.

nintendo ds r4 April 6, 2010 at 8:17 am

Do you realize that more white people commit crimes than black people. No, you probably did not. That would be because you have a stereotype in your mind that compels you to dislike and disengage from your own people.

Careless April 6, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Columbia University today has an undergrad student body that is about 8% black. I’m pretty sure you have to do more than put down “black” on your transfer application to get admitted.

A quick look shows the average SAT score at Occidental to be 1260. Columbia averaged 1431. A little more quick googling suggests that 1100 gets an African American with good grades into Cornell (easier to get into than Columbia, admittedly). 170 points seems within the range.

So yes, checking that box on your application could be enough for someone at Occidental to bump himself to Columbia.

Steve Sailer April 6, 2010 at 8:51 pm

So, what have we learned?

That the kind of conventional wisdom about race fashionable among American intellectuals — “white privilege,” “race doesn’t exist” and so forth — tends to make people who consider themselves sophisticated thinkers more obtuse. The main reason why racially ambiguous people who go to prison are so likely to change their self-identification from white to black or other minority — to avoid prison rape — ought to be obvious, but the point of most writing on race today is to smugly congratulate yourself on how oblivious you are to the obvious.

Seamus McCauley April 8, 2010 at 11:25 am

Results show that respondents who have been incarcerated are more likely to identify and be seen as black, and less likely to identify and be seen as white, regardless of how they were perceived or identified previously

This sentence still seems to work if you replace “been incarcerated” with “become President”.

Internet Startup Consultant August 9, 2010 at 2:52 am

These findings are further confirmed by Human Rights Watch’s own research. Overall, our correspondence and interviews with white, black, and Hispanic inmates convince us that white inmates are disproportionately targeted for abuse.

Steven Abreu August 19, 2010 at 3:15 am

It may not mean as much to people in certain SES groups as it does to others and it will probably differ regionally. Thanks for sharing.

Bathtubs August 23, 2010 at 4:14 am

Among people that said they were black the first time, there should be no bias as long as people who respond ambivalently have the same incarceration rate as black people in general.

Fairmont Bathroom August 26, 2010 at 6:08 am

Incarceration is one of the main forms of punishment for the commission of felony offenses in the United States.Less serious offenders, such as those convicted of misdemeanor offenses, may receive a short term sentence to be served in a local city or county jail, or to alternative forms of sanctions such as community corrections and is anyone aware that the people in prison ars counted in the census of the prison location,and not where they come from.also prison is not a system but an industry.who is makeing the from the ,construction,supplying,feeding,and,staffing of these institutions of criminal education.this is one of the reasons that better shools and infrastructure maintenance are in the location of the prisons.investment in the prison industry is one of the fastest money makers.in the communities where the inmates{commodities}come fromthe schools,etc can”t get a dime.lets get rid of the politicians that continue to help this happen.

Sharon Avent September 3, 2010 at 2:04 am

it may be really true that it can make them people black.

Tracy Barrett September 11, 2010 at 4:29 am

well this post was too good. i totally agree with this post. thanks for sharing.

Internet Startup Consultant September 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Nice article,interesting and worth reading,racial identification for the non-incarcerated was quite stable.

Robert Brandriff September 24, 2010 at 2:45 am

superb post. very nice article. Black inmates tend to be better organized i agree, I will be sure, and not invoke in the crack, dealer, and anybody from the steady course of cars. crime rate is increasing as well.

Internet Slander Lawsuits October 4, 2010 at 8:02 am

Well i think in other words, racial identification for the non-incarcerated was quite stable….

Amir Blumenkranz October 14, 2010 at 7:21 am

Fine information, many thanks to the author. It is puzzling to me now, but in general, the usefulness and importance is overwhelming. Very much thanks again and best of luck!

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