“choice of identity may be the most important ‘economic’ decision people make.”

A growing body of evidence from anecdotes, historians, and recent studies suggests that this [racial and ethnic identities are fixed and exogenous] is not always true. In fact, there may be reason to believe that race is, to some extent, a choice made by an individual because of social-economic and political factors. For example, historians have long noted that Americans with African ancestry often chose to ‘pass’ for white to obtain better economic and political opportunities (e.g. O’Toole 2003 and Sharfstein 2011). Mill and Stein (2012) find that amongst mixed-race siblings, those that identify as white later in life earn significantly higher wages. Recent studies have also documented that individuals have responded to political-economic incentives and changed castes in India (Cassan 2013), manipulated their racial appearance for higher wages in Brazil (Cornwell et al. 2014), or have strategically chosen the official ethnicity of mixed children in China (Jia and Persson 2013). More generally, studies of identity, such as the theoretical work of Akerlof and Kranton (2000), argue that “choice of identity may be the most important ‘economic’ decision people make. Individuals may – more or less consciously – choose who they want to be … Previous economic analyses of, for example, poverty, labor supply, and schooling have not considered these possibilities”.

Emily Nix and Nancy Qian, “Is race a choice?VOX: CEPR’s Policy Portal, January 26, 2015. http://www.voxeu.org/article/race-choice.

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