Experts weighed in on when skin tone matters in politics and society.
(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."
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."
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.
But to play devil's advocate on whether there can be political benefits to having darker skin, I asked Blay to speculate whether President Obama would have been a successful presidential candidate if his wife had the light eyes and skin of former Miss America Vanessa L. Williams. "I do wonder," Blay replied.
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.)
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.