Colin Powell said it, Sen. Harry Reid hinted at it about President Barack Obama, and black folks have known it for hundreds of years. There are advantages to being a light-skinned black person in the United States.
Research on those advantages isn't new, but with the release of a recent study by Villanova University, the breadth of quantitative studies that examine colorism, or discrimination based on skin tone, continues to increase. From housing opportunities to employment chances to which women have a good shot at getting married, the lighter-is-better dynamic is at play, research shows.
Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones received more-lenient sentences and served less time than women with darker skin tones.
The researchers found that light-skinned women were sentenced to approximately 12 percent less time behind bars than their darker-skinned counterparts. Women with light skin also served 11 percent less time than darker women.
The study took into account the type of crimes the women committed and each woman's criminal history to generate apples-to-apples comparisons. The work builds on previous studies by Stanford University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and other institutions, which have examined how "black-looking" features and skin tone can impact black men in the criminal-justice arena.
But researchers say this is the first study to look at how colorism affects black women and how long they may spend in jail. Part of the reason may simply come down to how pretty jurors consider a defendant to be, and that being light-skinned and thin (also a factor studied in the research) are seen as more attractive, says Lance Hannon, co-author of the Villanova study.
Racism gets all the headlines, but colorism is just as real and impacting, Hannon explains. How "white" someone is perceived matters. "Colorism is clearly not taken as seriously or is not publicly discussed as much as racism, and yet these effects are pretty strong and the evidence is pretty strong," he says. "It's a very real problem, and people need to pay attention to it more."
Christina Swarns, director of the Criminal Justice Practice for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says the study's findings are part of a larger problem in how the justice system deals with African Americans. "It is obviously part and parcel of the problem of overincarceration of the African-American community in this country," she says. "There is unquestionably … an association between race and criminality, and I think this study emphasizes how skin color plays an important role in that perception of a link between race and criminality."
William Darity, professor of African-American studies and economics at Duke University and director of the Research Network on Racial & Ethnic Inequality, has studied the impact of skin shade on marriage rates for women and employment for men.
Darity says the Villanova study expands previous research and underscores a known truth. "This has been a long-standing issue and problem that all blacks don't face the same type or degree of discrimination," he says.
Treating people differently because of the lightness or darkness of their skin isn't exclusive to whites. As an example, Darity cites his research, which found that there are "real" disadvantages for darker-skinned black women when it comes to their chances of getting married.
"And one would have to say that's to a large degree the consequence of preferences on the part of black men," he says. That same preference for lighter-skinned black women over darker-skinned black women is true for white men, Darity adds.
But there has been recent movement by the government to take colorism more seriously, Hannon says. He pointed to a 2008 initiative by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that explicitly considers colorism. Hannon also notes that because the Civil Rights Act refers to "color" and not simply race, the door is open for litigation around colorism, which could also push the policy dial.
Darity believes that the benefits of light skin have to be addressed to cause change. "There are clear social and pecuniary benefits to being lighter-skinned in America," Darity says. "Unless we eliminate those benefits, this will go on, because the advantages are real."
Topher Sanders is a newspaper reporter living in Jacksonville, Fla., with his wife and son. You can follow his musings on life, sports and music on Twitter.