Is race a choice?

Is race a choice?

VOX: CEPR’s Policy Portal
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Centre for Economic Policy Research

Emily Nix, PhD candidate in Economics
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

Nancy Qian, Associate Professor of Economics
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

Race is usually treated as a fixed, exogenous characteristic in academic studies and policy discussions, but a growing body of evidence calls this assumption into question. This column presents evidence from historical US census data that more than 19% of black males ‘passed’ as white, around 10% of whom later ‘reverse-passed’ to being black. Passing was associated with geographic relocation and with better political-economic and social opportunities for whites relative to blacks, providing prima facie evidence that passing was endogenous.

The relationship between a person’s race and/or ethnicity and her economic, political, and social behaviour has been a focal point for numerous policy discussions. This is because the composition of race and ethnicity are often found to be associated with outcomes such as conflict, earnings, educational attainment, and voting. This is true in many different contexts across the world, including rich countries such as the US, middle-income countries such as Brazil and India, and very poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the interpretation that race has a causal impact on the aforementioned outcomes critically depends on whether one believes that race and ethnicity are exogenous and fixed characteristics – i.e. outside the control of an individual and constant over her lifetime.

The literature typically assumes that racial and ethnic identities are fixed and exogenous. For examples, see the reviews of the political economy literature by Alesina and Ferrara (2004) and of studies of the US black-white wage gap by Lang and Lehmann (2012)…

Read the entire article here.

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