Black communities and other communities of color have long known how “color” may shape their lives. Color can be described as a set of racialized characteristics—primarily skin tone, but also eye shape and color, hair texture and color, and lip and nose shape—that stratify groups of the same race. Typically, those with color characteristics closer to White, such as lighter skin, thinner noses, lighter eyes, and straighter hair, are conferred a wide array of advantages over their more “ethnic-looking” counterparts—a phenomenon known as “colorism.”
New data and analytic methods over the past two decades have allowed social scientists to conduct deep investigations of the contours of color advantage, with disturbing results. Stratification based on color is not only extreme, it is almost ubiquitous. Research shows that people with lighter skin and “Whiter” characteristics receive higher wages, more education, and shorter prison sentences; have higher self-esteem and better physical health; are perceived as more attractive, happier, and more competent; and are punished less frequently and less harshly in school, among a number of other social outcomes. Some studies even suggest that, for Black Americans, skin tone is a stronger predictor of economic success than their parents’ social class. This flood of research has run parallel to a spike in public awareness of colorism and its pernicious effects. Documentaries such as “Dark Girls” have documented the experiences of dark-skinned people, and the number of color discrimination cases submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission quadrupled between 1997 and 2016.
Most researchers attribute the beginnings of colorism to White people’s preference for light-skinned and mulatto—mixed Black and White—slaves and free people during the antebellum years. Indeed, a governmental report in the 1830s read, “in cases of insurrection, [mulattos] are more likely to enlist themselves under the banners of the whites.” These preferences resulted in significant mulatto advantage, including higher rates of manumission and freedom. Here, I will present an overview of the history and current standing of color stratification by the numbers:
(calculations made using the University of Minnesota Population Center’s Integrated Public-Use Microdata Series)