The “Darkening” Effects of Incarceration

07/23/2009 At 16:54:27 PM
Creative Commons License photo credit: Troy Holden

Research has repeatedly shown that race, rather than being an immutable trait of individuals, is actually quite fluid and may change over time and by social context. In the February issue of the journal Social Problems (v. 57, #1), sociologists Aliya Saperstein (University of Oregon) and Andrew Penner (University of California, Irvine) report their analysis of data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which demonstrates how incarceration affects convicted offenders’ self-perceptions of their race as well as others’ perceptions of their race (“The Race of a Criminal Record: How Incarceration Colors Racial Perceptions”). The NLSY asked a nationally representative sample of 12,686 young men and women (aged 14-22 years in 1979, when the survey began) a series of questions on a variety of topics, including their racial and ethnic identification; respondents’ race/ethnicity were also classified by NLSY interviewers. After the initial survey, participants were interviewed every year until 1994, when biennial surveying was initiated. In their intriguing and socially important study, Saperstein and Penner analyze NLSY data from 1979-2002 to see if participants’ own racial/ethnic identification changed and whether interviewers’ classifications of respondents’ race/ethnicity changed, depending on whether the respondent was or had been incarcerated in the intervening time period.

Without going into the complexities of the statistical analyses, which included numerous controls to rule out the effects of intervening variables, suffice it to say here that Saperstein and Penner found that NLSY participants who self-identified as European American in 1979 were significantly more likely to self-identify as black in 2002 if they had been incarcerated compared with those who had not been incarcerated. As Saperstein and Penner report, “these findings demonstrate . . . that incarceration leads to changes in racial self-identification and the effect operates primarily through making individuals see themselves as not quite white. To put this into perspective, consider that currently nearly 6 million people in the United States have been incarcerated . . . Based on our results, we would expect that more than 250,000 previously incarcerated individuals no longer identify as white as a result of their incarceration” (p. 103).

Saperstein and Penner also found that interviewers were more likely to change the racial/ethnic classification of NLSY respondents if the respondent was currently or had been incarcerated since the time of the last survey – and the change they made was to “darken” incarcerated respondents. That is, respondents who had been classified by interviewers as white prior to incarceration were more likely to be classified by interviewers as black once they were incarcerated.

Apart from further affirming the socially constructed nature of race, Saperstein and Penner’s study has, as they put it, “real-world consequences for racial inequality.” There is a good deal of research, some of which is cited by Saperstein and Penner, that shows that many white people associate black people, especially black men, with crime. This association is what underlies the practice of racial profiling by police, who, as I have pointed out on this blog before, target black neighborhoods for saturation policing, not surprisingly contributing to higher arrest and incarceration rates for blacks. This association also likely contributes to misidentification of criminal suspects by “eye witnesses,” thus resulting in higher erroneous convictions for blacks. I have also pointed out on this blog how incarceration contributes to poverty – especially poverty among black men due to their disproportionate incarceration rates – because a prison record lowers the likelihood of stable employment in a job that pays a decent wage. Saperstein and Penner’s analysis shows how “actual disparities in incarceration are exacerbated by stereotypical associations about the types of individuals who commit and/or are punished for committing crimes” (p. 110). Interestingly, more states are using early release of prisoners as a way to address fiscal crises, but as the Saperstein and Penner study reminds us, release from prison will do little, if anything, to reduce inequality; we must simultaneously address the invidious link between blackness and crime, not only in the minds of the general public, but also in minds of the formerly incarcerated themselves. Further research on why some people who have experienced incarceration change their racial identification from white to black and the meanings that race has for them, as well as for those who do not undergo this redefinition of self, would be most welcome.


  1. Joe

    thanks, Claire, for a very revealing post. What do you make of the high level of black incarceration for relatively minor drug use? Some analysts recently have called the huge number of black folks put in prisons for relatively minor stuff a “new Jim Crow”? What do you think?

    And when did this high incarceration rate begin? In the 1960s?

    • Claire Renzetti Author

      I think referring to this practice as a “new Jim Crow” is pretty accurate. Many have also characterized the “war on drugs” as a war on black people since it is blacks, especially young black men, who I have pointed out on this blog are targeted by police. Ever since statistics have been kept on incarceration rates by race, the rates for blacks have been disproportionately higher than the rates for whites, and the disparity persists when a host of variables are controlled. Nevertheless, if you focus on drug arrests and convictions, the racial disparities have grown particularly great since the 1980s.

  2. Kristen

    Thank you for highlighting this most fascinating research.

    Based on implicit bias research, I definitely see the dynamic of interviewers “blackening” those who’ve been incarcerated, pulling from the blackness-criminality association. I am curious, however, as to the dynamics at play from the side of the incarcerated who begin identifying as black. I think it may be more than what you propose – that those incarcerated are similarly linking with the black-criminal stereotype. I would think that an alternative (and not completely unrelated) dynamic is that they move away from identifying with privilege, that’s it’s more a move to identify with those who are targeted and disadvantaged by the criminal justice system and/or the larger society.

    • Claire Renzetti Author

      You make an excellent point, Kristen. I encourage you to read the article. I wish the authors had explored this aspect of the research more fully, but at the very end they raise the same point that you do: that this process is a stripping of white privilege.

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