More adventures in the reliability of fixed traits

March 23, 2010 at 5:21 am 9 comments

| Gabriel |

[Update: the finding is not robust. See Hannon and Defina]

Last year I described a memo by Gary Gates about some implications of coding errors for gender.

The new Social Problems has an article by Saperstein and Penner that’s comparably weird (and an impressive effort in secondary data analysis). They use data from NLSY on self-reported race over many waves and find that after a prison term an appreciable number of people who always or almost always had called themselves “white” will start calling themselves “black.” The finding seems to be a real effect rather than just random reliability problems as it’s often a sustained shift in identity over subsequent waves and the rate is strongly in one direction after the prison shock. You can’t really demonstrate validity for this kind of thing in a brief summary, but suffice it to say that if you read the article you get the very strong impression that the authors were both careful from the get go and faced demanding peer reviewers.

It’s obviously a weird finding but it makes some sense once you buy that a) identity is somewhat plastic and that b) the racial associations of crime and criminal justice could have an impact on this. One way to understand the results is that many people have multiple ancestry which they can invoke in kind of an ancestral toolkit. For instance Wentworth Miller ’95 (who given his most famous two performances could be seen as the personification of this article) might decide to emphasize his whiteness, Jewishness, blackness, or Arabness, whereas I am limited to the much narrower gamut of identifying as white or Jewish. Largely as a function of with whom I was associating at the time, I have in fact at times self-identified as mostly Irish or as mostly Jewish, but I’d always imagined that I lack the option of plausibly considering myself black. The really weird thing is that this intuition seems to be mistaken as the SP article finds that the effect is not limited to people who the authors could identify as being Hispanic or mixed-race but extends to many non-Hispanic whites with no known black ancestry.

One complication to keep in mind is that almost all American blacks have a lot of white (and to a lesser extent, American Indian) ancestry but we still tend to consider them “black” rather than “mixed race” unless they have a very high proportion of white ancestry and/or very white phenotype. That is the American identity=f(ancestry) is pretty bizarre and it’s hard to puzzle how that affects findings like in the SP piece. For this and other reasons I’d love to see this kind of study replicated in a society with racial schemas other than the “one-drop” tradition.

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  • 1. Michael Bishop  |  March 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Guang Guo gave an interesting presentation on race at uchicago using genetic data. Among other things, he found that, in a sample of college students, those from the south were much less likely to identify as multi-racial, conditional on what their genes tell us about their ancestry.

  • 2. Joshua Zelinsky  |  March 26, 2010 at 1:36 am

    Hmm, does this impact data on incarceration rates by race or what fraction of different racial groups can’t vote due to felony convictions? This might depend on the methodologies used.

    I’d be very curious if the change in identification has any correlation or inverse correlation with recidivism rates.

    • 3. gabrielrossman  |  March 31, 2010 at 7:12 pm

      interesting questions. my hunch is “not much” but it’s the kind of thing you could answer with the dataset. the conclusion of the article speculates along these lines but it doesn’t provide any estimates. nor does it just tell us what the racial incarceration rates are based on 1979 race vs 2002 race. however there are enough figures in the paper to allow back of the envelope calculation.
      in table 2a it says people who start black have only a 1% chance of “becoming” white regardless of whether they’ve been to prison whereas people who start white have a 2% chance of “becoming” black if they stay out of prison and an 8% chance of “becoming” black if they’ve been to prison.
      i’m too lazy to do the arithmetic, but you could use that to treat it as a 3 stage bayesian problem where the forks are black79, prison, black02. you could then solve for p(prison|black79) based on what we know about p(prison|black02).

  • 4. Steve Sailer  |  April 5, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    One obvious cause of people who go to prison being vastly more likely to shift their self-identification from white to black than from black to white 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.”

    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.

    Thus, you see that 19.1% of 1979 whites who went to jail shifted to minority by 2002, while only 0.8% of 1979 blacks who went to jail called themselves white in 2002.

  • 5. Steve Sailer  |  April 5, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Try putting yourselves in the shoes of a typical person who might switch racial identification from white to black after being incarcerated between 1979 and 2002.

    Say your dad is about a quarter or a half black, but he never married your mom, who is white, and disappeared when you were an infant. Your mom then married a white guy, who treated you well, and you have younger half-siblings who are 100% white. When you enrolled in the NSLY in 1979 between the ages of 14 and 22, you put down white instead of black. You are mostly white genetically, your upbringing is all white, and all your loved ones are white. It would seem disloyal to your loved ones to emphasize that you aren’t like them.

    Then you screw up and go to prison. You quickly discover that white inmates are in much more danger of being raped by black inmates than blacks are by whites. Black inmates tend to be better organized — many of them are enterprising drug dealers and the like, for whom prison is a cost of doing business — and they protect blacks from attacks by whites. In contrast, the white inmates tend to be screw-ups who don’t organize well to protect themselves, and thus are preyed upon by blacks.

    So, you tell everybody in the joint that you are black. When you get, out you keep telling people you are black.

    • 6. gabrielrossman  |  April 5, 2010 at 7:45 pm

      the article doesn’t have the appropriate methods to go into the causal mechanism, but generally the authors’ speculation agrees with the horrific causal mechanisms you’re suggesting. in this sense you can see the organization of prison gangs, including both the alignment of individual prisoners circa the 1980s and the development of white prison gangs a little later, as an unusually tragic example of the problem of categorical uncertainty, which has also been described in more benign circumstances like the benefit to corporations of focusing on core competency and of films to developing focused genre identities.

      here’s a passage from page 95 that is consistent with your speculation:

      • 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.
  • 7. Steve Sailer  |  April 5, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks. I don’t have free access to the article, so it’s good to see we both came up independently with the same idea.

    In general, if you want to get rid of white prison gangs, the most obvious first step is to get rid of prison rape.

    • 8. gabrielrossman  |  April 5, 2010 at 8:12 pm

      I think that’s about right, though I’d put it more generally as “if you want to get rid of prison gangs, the most obvious first step is to assure the safety of any prisoner who is just trying to serve his time quietly.” of course this is something of a catch 22 and not being a criminologist, i don’t have any idea how to go about doing it though i’d certainly support any efforts along those lines. even if we assume for the sake of argument that mass incarceration is, on net, necessary on the “incapacitation” logic of criminal justice, that doesn’t mean the experience of incarceration ought to be hellish.

  • 9. Steve Sailer  |  April 5, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Another factor is the disappearance over time of white street gangs (as opposed to prison gangs). In Los Angeles County, for example, one industrious researcher came up with the names of 137 Asian gangs. But I can only find one white street gang left in LA: Armenian Power.

    Thus, individuals attracted to the street gang life in LA County need to join nonwhite gangs by emphasizing the nonwhite part of their family tree.

    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.”

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

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