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The Fluidity of Race: "Passing" in the United States, 1880-1940

Emily Nix, Nancy Qian

NBER Working Paper No. 20828
Issued in January 2015
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Political Economy

This paper quantifies the extent to which individuals experience changes in reported racial identity in the historical U.S. context. Using the full population of historical Censuses for 1880-1940, we document that over 19% of black males “passed” for white at some point during their lifetime, around 10% of whom later “reverse-passed” to being black; passing was accompanied by geographic relocation to communities with a higher percentage of whites and occurred the most in Northern states. The evidence suggests that passing was positively associated with better political-economic and social opportunities for whites relative to blacks. As such, endogenous race is likely to be a quantitatively important phenomenon.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w20828

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