Spotlight: An Interview with Mark Ellis on his Work, "Place, Scale, and the Racial Claims made for Multiracial Children in the 1990 U.S. Census"

Mark Ellis
WCPC Faculty Affiliate
Professor of Geography
University of Wahington


Mark Ellis is a Professor of Geography at the University of Washington who studies issues of migration, ethnicity, and local labor markets. His most recent poverty-related research includes a study of residential segregation and spatial divisions of labor among immigrants and an investigation of the dynamics of industrial, occupational and regional employment concentrations for native and immigrant populations.


The December 2008 Poverty Research Flash (Issue 2008-13) highlights the article Place, Scale, and the Racial Claims Made for Mulitracial Children in the 1990 US Census, which Professor Ellis co-authored with Steven R. Holloway, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Georgia, Richard Wright, Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College, and Margaret East, who holds a doctorate from the University of Georgia. The article is forthcoming in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies.  WCPC had the opportunity to ask Professor Ellis about his thoughts on this research.


WCPC: How did you become interested in the way that parents racially identify their children and how that interacts with poverty?

Ellis: It is an open question how the children of mixed-race couples will be racially identified. My collaborators and I are interested in the ways in which children are identified by their parents at early ages and how this is mediated by neighborhood racial context and class (which we proxy crudely by family income).

WCPC: How do you expect working with the 2000 Census data will be different than the 1990 data used in this paper?

Ellis: Census 2000 data allow us to explore the question of racial identification in more detail because it allows for multiple racial identification. This rich detail will allow us to see how multiple racial identification is conditioned on class and place.

WCPC: What was the most significant finding to you?

Ellis: That the racial identification of mixed-race children is partially determined by the neighborhood racial context in which they live. Thus the odds that a child of mixed-race parents is reported as white is higher in neighborhoods that are mostly white. This provides support for the claim that place makes race.

WCPC: What questions does this research raise for future inquiry?

Ellis: The research adds to a growing body of evidence that racial identifications are malleable and constructed. It shows how sub-national place is part of this construction. Future research should be sensitive to the way in which racialized identities are contingent on location at sub-national scales as small as neighborhoods.

WCPC: What implications does this study have for policy makers?

Ellis: Identities are dependent on place. This means, for example, that understandings of who is white and who is not are place (and almost certainly time) dependent. This adds to the uncertainties about the future viability and meaning of racialized categories that are essential for the enforcement of civil rights law.