Is There Colorism on the Campaign Trail?

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

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Voter Bias, or Opportunity Gap?

Blay went on to explain that historically, the ascent of lighter-skinned leaders was tied to more than just the perception that lighter is closer to whiter and, therefore, better. "We know that historically, skin color has determined who has access to education and [has the] ability to be educated, [which] lends itself to people being prepared to take on these leadership roles, particularly roles that require being accepted and affirmed by the larger society. I think there are so many intersecting points. You have the fact that colorism intersects [with socioeconomic factors]."

Research has confirmed Blay's assertion of skin-tone privilege. A 1973 study (pdf) concluded that "a greater percentage of light blacks attended college, had white-collar occupations and were from families having highly educated parents." It's reasonable to assume that those benefits have had positive effects on those parents' progeny, whether or not those children headed into politics.

The intersection of skin color and class status among black Americans began during slavery. As explained in the textbook Black Slave Owners in Charleston, when black female slaves would give birth to children fathered by their white slave owners, some slave owners would leave property or other forms of inheritance to their children, and some would bestow freedom upon them, too. This created a class of "free persons of color" who were more likely to be fair-skinned and have some measure of economic stability, upward mobility and education.

Generations later, the results were evident in the number of fair-skinned black Americans in prominent cultural roles, and not just elected office. The first black U.S. ambassador, Edward Dudley; the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall; the first black male presidential-cabinet member, Robert Weaver, and first black female one, Patricia Roberts Harris; and the first black Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ralph Bunche, were all light-skinned.

The Obama Twist 

Although political consultants I contacted declined to comment on this topic, the benefit of being a lighter-skinned black candidate has already been addressed by one of the country's most prominent Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid famously apologized after the book Game Change quoted him as saying of then-presidential candidate Obama that America was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate -- especially a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect," unless he wanted to have one.

While some have argued that President Obama's election affirms that America is becoming a more racially tolerant society, Blay noted that there are academics who believe it proves the opposite: that maybe some voters voted for Obama as a half-white candidate, not a black one.

Keep in mind, the black electorate has had a pivotal role in the president's election wins. "Because I think it's Michelle's brownness that authenticates President Obama as a quote-unquote 'real black man' for black people," Blay said. "If he had been married to a white woman or a very light-skinned woman, then people may have made certain presumptions."

David Bositis noted that colorism is not an issue specific to African-American culture but is also one with which people in Brazil and other parts of Latin America grapple. But his observation is that it is rarely talked about in the U.S. (It's worth noting that a number of American minority politicians from other ethnic backgrounds are extremely light-skinned, among them South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is Indian American; former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Latino and Anglo American; and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who are Latino.)