Irvine, Calif., Sept. 22, 2014 – A new study by UC Irvine and Stanford University sociologists shows that issues of income inequality and race are not as black and white as most people in the U.S. think.

“Americans have long [considered] whites as the most privileged, highest income earners and blacks as the least,” said Stanley Bailey, UCI associate professor of sociology.

However, findings published online Sept. 19 in Demographic Research suggest a more complicated picture of race differences in income. Bailey and co-authors Aliya Saperstein, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, and Andrew Penner, UCI associate professor of sociology, report that in 2012, Americans of Asian origin had the highest per capita household income in the U.S., while Latinos and American Indians had the lowest. Whites ranked second-highest, followed by multiracial Americans and African Americans.

Results are based on the General Social Survey of more than 3,500 American adults. The 2012 poll was the first to measure both racial self-identification and perceived skin color for a nationally representative sample.

Racial self-identification involved the standard categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau, such as white, black or African American, and American Indian. Respondents’ skin color was rated by interviewers on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the darkest.

“Including the novel skin color measure reveals how accounting for differences in physical appearance can complicate our previous understandings of racial inequality,” Bailey said.

For example, when paired with self-reported household income, the study shows that while Latino families, generally, have lighter skin color than African Americans, they earn less. Latinos and Asians averaged 3.2 on the skin color scale, whereas African Americans averaged 6.0 and white Americans 1.7.

“Interestingly, the gap in household income between blacks and whites can be explained in this study by differences in perceived skin color alone,” Penner said.

“But the disadvantage of Latinos is more complicated. Even when we account for recent migration and education, in addition to skin color, most of the gap in household income between Latinos and non-Latino whites remains.”

The results are consistent with other recent research that suggests identifying oneself as Latino is, in part, a way to signal that one has been treated differently or discriminated against by other Americans, Saperstein noted.

“When people tell us how they identify themselves racially, they are not just telling us something about their origin or ancestry,” she said. “They are often also telling us something about their social status, how they feel like they are viewed relative to other people in society. Americans who identify as Latino might be signaling that they feel an added dimension of difference on top of appearing darker, on average, than people who identify only as white.”

The UCI-Stanford study also compared inequality by skin color and racial self-identification between the U.S. and a number of countries in Latin America. Data for the latter came from the 2012 AmericasBarometer, which has similar measures of race for nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Although many think of racial classification as more fluid or complex in Latin American countries as a result of more frequent mixing among European, African and indigenous populations, the researchers found considerable variation in whether income inequality is better characterized by a spectrum of skin color or more stark racial divides across the region.

“Racial inequality in Brazil looks different than in Mexico or Uruguay,” Bailey said. “In fact, in Panama and Honduras, people with the darkest skin are actually the most advantaged in terms of average household income. There, because of particular histories of immigration and exclusion, the typical notion of racial inequality is turned on its head.”

Overall, the study suggests that it’s important to account for different aspects of race to fully understand patterns of inequality.

“In many societies around the world, lighter skin is privileged over darker skin, and this is true not only between groups but within them,” Saperstein said. “However, there’s also a difference between people who have light skin and people who identify – or are seen by others – as white.”

The findings demonstrate the complexities of racial inequality and how knowing what people call themselves can be as important as knowing what they look like.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old by the London-based Times Higher Education and is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Currently under the leadership of Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. Located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities, it’s Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.3 billion annually to the local economy.

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