Americans tend to think of race as a fixed characteristic defined by descent. During the early 20th century the “one-drop rule” crystallized legal segregation. Anyone with any known African ancestry was to be classified and treated simply as black. The rule applied even to people who appeared to be white, such as Walter White, a prominent early member of the NAACP.
The very fact that the United States tried so hard to impose such sharp distinctions suggests that race was not so much a biological or genetic characteristic but a socially constructed one. If racial differences were “natural,” how could the same person be considered blanca (white) in Brazil, or perhaps mestiza in Mexico, but black in the United States? How could the same person be described by the Census as “White” in 1910, “Hindu” in 1930, “Other” in 1960, and “Asian Indian” from 1980 on?
Nevertheless, most Americans still think a person’s race is fairly obvious and unchanging; we know it the minute we meet him or her. Similarly, most academic research also treats race as fixed and foreordained. A person’s race comes first and then his or her experiences, education, job, neighborhood, income, and well-being follow. My research with Andrew Penner on how survey respondents were classified by race over the course of their lives, calls into question this seemingly obvious “fact.”