Lance Hannon and Robert DeFina are professors in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Villanova University.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” However, in our public discourse, the second of those categories — “color” — is rarely mentioned as a source of discrimination distinct from “race.” And when “colorism” — discrimination based on skin shade — does get discussed, it is framed almost exclusively as something that occurs only within a racial group — “black-on-black discrimination,” as a 2005 segment of ABC’s “20/20” program put it.
But is that correct? There are two common reasons colorism by whites gets overlooked. First, social science seems to bolster anecdotal evidence that white people see variation in skin tone in a narrower range than African Americans do. Second, given that one’s racial category has always been of such great importance in the United States — think of the infamous “one-drop rule” — any impact of skin-tone differences within racial categories is assumed to be minuscule in comparison. While both of these rationales may seem to make sense on the surface, on close inspection neither provides justification for ignoring clear, real-life consequences of white colorism.
Regarding the first point: Our recent analysis of data from the National Opinion Research Center’s long-running General Social Survey confirms that African Americans and whites judge skin tone quite differently. In particular, white observers perceive the skin tones of black individuals as much darker than black observers do. This is consistent with other data showing that, to use one example, roughly 42 percent of whites describe Tiger Woods as having “dark” or “very dark” skin, while only about 14 percent of African Americans say the same. But such results do not mean that white people are “tone-blind.” In fact, there is solid evidence that white people do indeed see significant variation in African American skin tones. It is just that this variation is concentrated at the darker end of the scale.
What, then, about the second rationalization? Is white colorism irrelevant in comparison to pervasive bias against all black people in the United States? While it is true that all African Americans face significant discrimination, all African Americans do not face the same level or type of discrimination. Indeed, results from rigorous social science analyses reveal a powerful effect of skin tone that is independent of the powerful effect of race.
For example, research in economics has shown that the wage gap between lighter- and darker-skinned African Americans is nearly as large as the gap between African Americans and whites. In our analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, we found that the darkest-skinned African American girls were three times more likely to be suspended at school than their lighter-skinned counterparts — a disparity that is again roughly equal to the gap between blacks and whites. Alternatively put, while African American girls are three times more likely to be suspended than white girls, the darkest-skinned African American girls are several times more likely to experience suspension. Given that white people continue to hold positions of power in schools and the labor market, it is highly improbable that such significant disparities are solely the product of “black-on-black discrimination.”
Additionally, new results from the American National Election Studies more directly illustrate the degree of skin tone prejudice by whites. Those data indicate that white interviewers are several times more likely to judge an African American they see as light skinned to be above average in intelligence, regardless of that African American’s educational credentials.
In 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission created the E-RACE initiative (Eradicating Racism and Colorism from Employment) to “highlight new and emerging discrimination issues.” That’s certainly a worthy goal, but it’s doomed to fall short so long as we continue to frame our limited discussions of colorism as something only African Americans do to other African Americans. It’s time we opened our eyes to the true nature and magnitude of white colorism in American society.
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