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State of Democracy Lecture: Aliya Saperstein

Maxwell Auditorium

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Racial Mobility: The Dynamics of Race and Inequality in the United States  


What is it that you know when you know someone’s race? Discussing the specifics makes many Americans uncomfortable, and there is little agreement on what researchers are trying to measure – skin color, ancestry, geography, culture, identity – with those race boxes we regularly ask people to check on forms and in surveys. Nevertheless, most studies of inequality in the United States assume that a person’s race is an input into our stratification system: a static, individual attribute that is ascribed at birth and helps to explain who accrues advantages or disadvantages throughout life. Professor Saperstein’s work demonstrates instead that race is both multi-dimensional and malleable: how Americans see racial difference has been shaped by centuries of discrimination and inequality, so a person’s race does not simply pre-date their upward or downward mobility; how we perceive each other and identify ourselves is also a result of those experiences. This “racial mobility” represents a vicious cycle between racial categorization and inequality that has important implications for both data collection and public policy. 


Aliya Saperstein is an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University whose research focuses on the conceptualization and measurement of race/ethnicity and sex/gender, and their consequences for understanding social inequality. Her work has earned recognition from academic journals, research centers, and professional associations in sociology and demography, including the 2016 Early Achievement Award from the Population Association of America. Saperstein, a former Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, is currently completing a book manuscript on Racial Mobility

This lecture is made possible through a generous gift from the Norman M. and Marsha Lee Berkman fund.


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