Is There Colorism on the Campaign Trail?

Experts weighed in on when skin tone matters in politics and society.

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(The Root) -- The latest installment of CNN's docuseries Black in America asked the question "Who Is Black in America?" and examined the issue of colorism: bias based not just on race but also on actual skin color. The news special cited well-documented research confirming that lighter-skinned immigrants earn more than their darker-skinned counterparts. But one topic the special did not explore is whether skin-color bias has a tangible impact on American politics, particularly at the national level.

Are Americans more likely to vote for a minority candidate who is lighter-skinned? The experts we spoke with said it appears so.

David A. Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank specializing in research relating to blacks, said that the numbers speak for themselves. "You can't think of many [black politicians] who are very dark," he noted.

To his point, most elected (as opposed to appointed) black American politicians who have broken a significant barrier have either been extremely light-skinned or part white. Examples include Edward Brooke, the first black senator to be popularly elected; Adam Clayton Powell Jr., New York's first black congressman; Douglas Wilder, the first black governor in the U.S.; and David Dinkins, New York's first black mayor. Then, of course, there is President Barack Obama, who is not as light as the others, but is also not dark -- and whom most Americans are aware is of biracial parentage.

A Complicated Color Complex

Elinor Tatum, editor and publisher of the Amsterdam News, one of the country's oldest black newspapers, said she believes that skin-color bias continues to play a role in the leaders we elect, although she explained that it often depends on which offices those leaders are running for. When asked if there have historically been benefits to being a lighter-skinned black politician, Tatum said of the political landscape in New York: "I believe historically there have been. People that are running citywide -- I think it has made a difference. For people who are running in smaller communities, it hasn't made as much of a difference, especially if [the politician has] a black constituency."

To Tatum's point, New York's first black citywide elected official was Percy Sutton, who, like Mayor Dinkins, was not dark-skinned. There have been darker-skinned politicians who have succeeded on the national stage, but who came from predominantly black districts; among them is Major Owens, a former congressman who represented a predominantly black district in New York. The challenge, Tatum and other experts I spoke with highlighted, becomes when a black politician needs a wider coalition of support and must appeal to nonblack constituencies. At that point, darker skin tone presents a greater challenge.

In an interview with The Root, Yaba Blay, founder of the "(1)ne Drop" project and a consulting producer on "Who Is Black in America?" explained, "In slavery, white ancestry communicated, through skin color, one's approximation to whiteness at a time when whiteness was equated with being human, and blackness was equated with chattel. So looking white was a saving grace. [It meant] you are more human, civilized, smarter -- all the more positive associations people assign to whiteness. So when we look at the larger society and the ability to see a black person as a potential leader, I think it's absolutely connected to colorism in that historical framework."

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When asked if she is surprised that a number of barrier-breaking black elected officials have been light-skinned, Blay said, "When we look at this long list of leaders in those historical moments and even those contemporary moments, it's no surprise to me that the larger society would be more comfortable with a lighter-skinned or mixed-race person in a position of leadership."

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