When coroners fill out a death certificate, they must make note of the race of the deceased, but that can sometimes be a subjective call. A new study finds that officials’ perception of a person’s race may be influenced by the way that person died.
For the study, researchers at U.C. Irvine and University of Oregon, Eugene, looked at data from 22,905 death certificates in the 1993 National Mortality Followback Survey, which compared information on official death certificates with information provided by family members of the deceased: in 1.1% of cases, it turned out, family members said the race noted on the death certificate was incorrect.
More interestingly, the type of race-identity errors made indicated bias on the part of coroners and undertakers. In line with commonly held stereotypes, researchers found that victims of homicide were more likely to be listed incorrectly as black, while those who died of cirrhosis of the liver were disproportionately misidentified as Native American.
The L.A. Times‘ Booster Shots blog reports:
The researchers found that Native Americans were 2.6 times more likely than others to die of cirrhosis of chronic liver disease during the time period they studied. But the researchers used statistical methods to control for that fact, and they still found that people who died of cirrhosis were 2.9 times more likely to be identified as Native Americans on their death certificates. In fact, the more factors the researchers controlled for — including income and place of residence — the more the cause of death (cirrhosis) influenced the victim’s perceived race (Native American).
During the period of the study, blacks were 6.6 times more likely than whites to be victims of homicide. But after taking that into account — and even after controlling for the victim’s income, occupation and other demographic factors — the researchers calculated that homicide victims were 4.4 times more likely to be perceived as African Americans than people who died of natural causes.
“Our results suggest that the disparities have started to take on a life of their own, to become self-fulfilling prophecies. People are so used to thinking in stereotypical terms that they create the associations even when they are not actually there,” said co-author Aliya Saperstein, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, in a statement. “The inconsistencies in racial classification are windows into what race means in the United States and how racial distinctions and boundaries are created.”
The study was published online Wednesday by PLoS One.
More on TIME.com: