The Race of a Criminal Record: How Incarceration Colors Racial Perception

Andrew Penner, University of California, Berkeley
Aliya Saperstein, University of California, Berkeley

This study examines the effect of incarceration on racial classification. In the U.S., racial disparities in incarceration are widely discussed and debated. We extend this conversation by exploring whether incarceration also functions as a social cue when observers classify someone's race. We find that there is a contextual effect of incarceration on the perception of one's race, using longitudinal data with repeated measures of how respondents were racially classified by interviewers. Interviewers are less likely to perceive currently incarcerated respondents as white even if they were classified as white in the previous year. Respondents who were classified as black in the previous year are more likely to remain so if currently incarcerated. Further, these effects are relatively persistent; for example, ever-incarcerated respondents who were classified as black have more stable racial classifications than the never incarcerated. The implications of these findings for research on race and inequality are discussed.

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Presented in Session 109: The Demography of Crime and Punishment