Saturday, April 17, 2021


Article Index

II. Color Discrimination

Discrimination on the basis of color, rather than race, has long been documented by researchers. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois *78 described intra-racial colorism when he commented on that city's "Aristocracy of the Negro population" in the late 1890s. Du Bois observed, "[t]hey are largely Philadelphia born, and being descended from the house servant class, contain many mulattoes." Du Bois noted that Philadelphia's Black elites did not interact with their less affluent counterparts in ordinary assemblages or promenading places. The insular and elitist nature of the group was reflected in Du Bois' observation that "[s]trangers secure entrance to this circle with difficulty and only by introduction." Decades later in the landmark study, An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal wrote: "without a doubt a Negro with light skin and other European features has in the North an advantage with white people."

In 1957, Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier made a similar observation in Black Bourgeoisie. He wrote: "a light complexion resulting from racial mixture raised a mulatto above the level of an unmixed Negro." Frazier explained that "[p]artly because of the differential treatment accorded to the mulattoes, but more especially because of the general degradation of the Negro as a human being, the Negro of mixed ancestry thought of himself as superior to the unmixed Negro. His light complexion became his most precious possession."

Over the last two decades, a large body of scholarship examining the detrimental effects of color discrimination has been produced by scholars representing a range of academic disciplines. In general, the research shows that dark-skinned Blacks are treated differently and less favorably than their lighter-complexioned counterparts. Legal scholars have complained about the courts' reluctance to acknowledge color discrimination. In Colorism: A Darker Shade of Pale, Taunya Banks explored the history of color discrimination in America and analyzed the *79 problems it has posed in employment discrimination cases. Skin tone discrimination, she wrote, is an aspect of employment discrimination that courts have been hesitant to recognize. She found that judges are more willing to acknowledge color discrimination in cases involving ethnic Whites and Latinos, but are hesitant to do so when Black claimants are involved. Courts are skeptical of claims involving intra-racial discrimination as it does not fit the traditional paradigm of Whites discriminating against Blacks. Banks concluded that courts possess the legal authority to redress claims under existing antidiscrimination laws and should be more willing to recognize claims of color discrimination when African-Americans assert them.

Other scholars have made similar observations. In Shades of Brown: the Law of Skin Color, Trina Jones examines the history of colorism in America and the discrimination against individuals based on skin color. She distinguishes intra-group colorism from cross-racial colorism and traditional discrimination: the first involves lighter-skinned African-Americans and Whites disfavoring darker-skinned Blacks; the second involves Whites discriminating against all Blacks. In both cases, darker-complexioned Blacks are the victims. Jones complains that courts tend to minimize the significance of this distinction using a flawed interpretation of antidiscrimination laws. Jones argues that a more nuanced understanding of discrimination is needed to recognize color discrimination. In Title VII: What's Hair (and Other Race Based Characteristics) Got to Do With It, D. Wendy Greene conducted a similar analysis and reached the same conclusion: color-based discrimination claims made by Black complainants are misunderstood and should be recognized, given that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and color.

*80 Leonard Baynes examined the "Dark-Light Paradigm" of African-American and Latino colorism. He determined that an entrenched color hierarchy among non-White ethnic groups operates to the detriment of dark- complexioned Blacks and Latinos. Baynes bolstered his analysis with data that showed darker-skinned Blacks and Latinos tend to have smaller incomes, lower levels of educational attainment, and less prestigious employment positions than lighter-skinned Blacks and Latinos.

Colorism has even infected the criminal justice system. Research has shown that dark-skinned Blacks receive longer prison sentences than their lighter-complexioned counterparts. An article examining racial disparities in the criminal justice system cited a study of 67,000 male felons incarcerated in Georgia for a first offense from 1995 through 2002. The data showed that dark-skinned Black defendants received longer sentences than light-skinned Blacks.

In another article, the authors examined discrimination on the basis of what they called "Afrocentric" features, which they defined as darker skin color, fuller lips and broader noses. The authors collected and analyzed data that showed that Black defendants in Florida who had prominent African features tended to receive longer sentences than other Blacks whose racial physiognomy was less distinctive. Using photographs and other information about inmates, including the offenses for which they were convicted and their criminal records, the authors found that among African-American inmates, those with prominent African features tended *81 to receive longer sentences than others whose African features were not as prominent. The researchers concluded that Afrocentric features activated an unconscious stereotype of Blacks as dangerous criminals, which influenced the decisionmaking process and caused the imposition of longer sentences when dark-skinned defendants were convicted.

The disparities are not limited to male defendants. A recent study found that Black female offenders who are light-skinned received shorter prison sentences than darker-complexioned offenders. The authors collected data on 12,158 imprisoned Black women in North Carolina between 1995 and 2009. The study showed that women with light skin were sentenced to approximately 12% less prison time than their darker-skinned counterparts. The study examined factors such as prior records, conviction dates, misconduct while incarcerated, and having low body weight, as well as whether the women were convicted of homicide or robbery since these crimes carry heavier prison terms. The authors concluded that colorism demonstrates the complexity of racism in our society and added that "it is no longer sufficient to understand racial discrimination solely in terms of the relative advantages of Whites compared to non-Whites. Among Blacks, characteristics associated with Whiteness appear to have a significant impact on important life outcomes."

Color discrimination affects a wide range of activities. Using a longitudinal design method that linked a sample of African-American men raised in the South to their census records, Mark Hill examined the influence of skin color on the socioeconomic attainment of African-American men. His findings showed the importance of skin color in directing the socioeconomic progress of African-American men. Individuals who identified as mulatto in the study had a higher adult socioeconomic status than Blacks with dark complexions. Hill's analysis indicated that differences in social origins were responsible for only 10 to 20% of the color gap in adult attainment levels. Hill's findings indicated *82 that color bias, rather than family background, was responsible for most of the color differences in the socioeconomic status of African-American men.

In The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order, the authors used surveys to develop an empirical analysis that found:

[D]ark-skinned blacks have lower levels of education, income and job status. They are less likely to own homes or to marry; and dark-skinned blacks' prison sentences are longer. Dark-skin discrimination occurs within as well as across races. Some evidence suggests, in fact, that intra-racial disparities are as detrimental to a person's life chances as are disparities traditionally associated with racial divisions. . . . With some exceptions, most Americans prefer lighter to darker skin aesthetically, normatively and culturally. Film-makers, novelists, advertisers, modeling agencies, matchmaking websites-all demonstrate how much the power of a fair complexion, along with straight hair and Eurocentric facial features, appeals to Americans.

The discussion in this section shows that a large body of theoretical and empirical research demonstrates conclusively that color bias is real and has an adverse effect on the lives of dark-complexioned African-Americans.