Is There Colorism on the Campaign Trail?

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

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Bositis theorized that part of why people are uncomfortable discussing colorism is that "in many ways [it] is at the core of racism: that if black is bad, the blacker you are, the worse you are; and if white is good, the whiter you are, the better you are. If you put it in those terms, it's so idiotic."

Looking to the Future

When asked if he sees colorism remaining an issue in American politics, Bositis likened it to discrimination based on height: something that is unconscious yet ingrained, and therefore harder to eradicate. A voter might not say, "I don't like short people," and yet he may be unlikely to vote for a presidential candidate who is 5 feet tall.

Research indicates that Bositis is right, with one recent study finding that those who watch a lot of television are more likely to feel "emotional discomfort" (pdf) after being exposed to dark-skinned black perpetrators in crime stories than when they're exposed to white ones, light-skinned ones or medium-toned ones. In another study, released last year, lighter-skinned women received shorter prison sentences than their darker-skinned counterparts.

But drawing on the height analogy, Bositis, noting that some shorter people use that challenge to motivate themselves to prove the rest of the world wrong, said that someone who is extremely dark-complexioned could strive for the same goal. However, when asked his thoughts on the fact that the black politicians mentioned as most likely to follow in President Obama's footsteps to the White House are Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and California Attorney General Kamala Harris -- both of whom are extremely popular, accomplished and light-skinned -- Bositis, who is white, noted, "I believe the song goes, if you're white, you're all right; if you're brown, stick around; if you're black, get back." He added that as far as politics go, the attitude behind the saying seems to persist to this day.

Photos above, clockwise from top left: Adam Clayton Powell; Harold Ford; Edward Brooke; Cory Booker; Colin Powell; David Dinkins; Douglas Wilder; Kamala Harris (Getty Images) 

Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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