Is There Colorism on the Campaign Trail?
Experts weighed in on when skin tone matters in politics and society.
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.