When Do People ¬Not Protest Unfairness? The Case of Skin Color Discrimination


Hochschild JL. When Do People ¬Not Protest Unfairness? The Case of Skin Color Discrimination. Social Research. 2006;73(2):473-498.

Full Text


NOTE: final revisions for publication are not here -- made only in paper version 


When Do People Not Protest Unfairness?:

The Case of Skin Color Discrimination


Jennifer Hochschild*


Social Research, summer 2006





One way to understand the conditions under which people develop and act on a sense of unfairness is to clarify the conditions in which they do not do so.  In this article I consider why African Americans tend not to protest or perhaps even to recognize discriminatory treatment by skin color, even or especially when they are deeply sensitive to discrimination by race.  I do so, in part, by briefly considering a parallel issue -- why poor Americans tend not to protest economic inequalities.  In both cases, people who suffer from discrimination may not protest it because they are unaware of their unfair treatment, because they perceive no alternatives, or because they see no means of effective protest.  Alternatively, from their own vantage points, poor Americans and dark-skinned African Americans may not protest discrimination against them because they care more about some other value such as religious salvation or racial solidarity than about greater economic equality.  Thus they may not consider their treatment unfair or may not want to protest it.  The article concludes with an argument about why African Americans, and other Americans, should nevertheless attend more than they do to skin tone differentiation.         





It was a color thing and a class thing. And for generations of black people, color and class have been inexorably tied together.

–Lawrence Graham, 2000


Well-to-do, fair-skinned kids in the neighborhood weren’t allowed to play with him and they regularly taunted him about his color, Jones says.... “That’s been a dominant force in my life,” he says. “Having lived through those experiences gave me the desire to fight for the disadvantaged.”

--(Robinson-English 2005)

That’s bullshit research.

--Comment at a conference, to co-author of my paper

on skin color and political attitudes, 2004




One way to understand the conditions under which people develop and act on a sense of unfairness is to clarify the conditions in which they do not do so.  The conditions may not be mirror images, of course – there may be an intermediate zone of confusion, or the two situations may not be exactly symmetrical – but they are surely related.  In this article I consider why African Americans tend not to protest or perhaps even to recognize discriminatory treatment by skin color, even or especially when they are deeply sensitive to discrimination by race.  I will do so, in part, by briefly considering a parallel issue -- why poor Americans tend not to protest economic inequalities, even when they recognize them to be excessive or even unfair.[1]

            Part of what makes this subject so fascinating is that it is not clear that, from a normative or political standpoint, blacks should protest skin color discrimination or poor whites should protest unfair economic inequalities.  From their own vantage points, members of these groups may gain more by not protesting than they would gain by protesting. I find that conclusion hard to take, but I consider it after laying out the initial empirical propositions.  The article concludes with an argument about why African Americans, and other Americans, should nevertheless attend more than they do to skin tone differentiation.          


“It’s a Color Thing and a Class Thing”

Colorism:  The analysis starts from the presumably uncontroversial presumption that race matters. More precisely, African Americans can be expected to resemble each other in perceptions of discrimination and understandings of unfairness more than they will resemble members of any other group.[2]  Less well known, however, is that how people behave and are treated is affected not only by the nominal category of race, but also by the ordinal category of multiple shades of skin tone. This is the phenomenon of “colorism” – “the tendency to perceive or behave toward members of a racial category based on the lightness or darkness of their skin tone” (Maddox and Gray 2002: 250). As with racism, a pejorative connotation is built into the word. Also like racism, it can be defined either unidirectionally (only those with power and status, i.e. light-skinned people, can exhibit colorism) or multidirectionally (people of one skin shade can denigrate or subordinate people of another, in any possible direction).[3]  Colorism can occur within one’s own community, or across racial and ethnic groups.  In theory, it can hold for Anglos, Asians, or any other “racial” group.


 Skin Color Hierarchy in History: Within communities of color, hierarchy based on skin tone is long-standing and widely, if often silently, acknowledged.  Lawrence Graham, for example, fills in the epigram above by writing,

I knew some [other black people] who not only had complexions ten shades lighter than that brown paper bag, and hair as straight as any ruler, but also had multiple generations of “good looks,” wealth, and accomplishment…. It was a color thing and a class thing. And for generations of black people, color and class have been inexorably tied together (Graham 2000).

Our more systematic historical research shows that the importance of skin color on life chances dates back at least to the nineteenth century.  Vesla Weaver’s analyses show that lighter-skinned black soldiers in the Union Army of the Civil War were, compared with darker-skinned soldiers, more likely to be skilled workers rather than field hands before entering the service (Hochschild, Burch and Weaver 2004; Metzer and Margo 1990). Sergeants and lieutenants were most likely to come from the lighter-skinned members of the group while darker soldiers were ranked lower on average; black soldiers with light skin were more likely to be promoted during their tenure in the Army.  These soldiers were significantly taller (a measure of nutrition) than their darker counterparts and -- most striking of all -- the lightest members of the black regiments were significantly less likely to die in service. In this, if in nothing else, the Civil War was not a unique event in American history; half a century later, boys who were identified as mulatto in the 1920 census grew up to be more likely to attain a white collar job, at a statistically significant level, than similarly situated boys who were labeled black (Hill 2000).[5]

It would be astonishing if this long history of skin tone discrimination -- within the black community as well as by outsiders – had no long-term impact reaching into the present. And indeed, it has, an impact to which I now turn.


Skin Color, Education, and Income:  An array of scholars using the eight national surveys with a skin color measure, as well as other local or more opportunistic surveys, have all come to the same conclusion: skin tone within a given race or ethnicity is associated with socioeconomic outcomes.  Our own analyses of several of these surveys concur.

Consider some illustrative evidence. The Multicity Study of Urban Inequality (MCSUI) was conducted in 1992-94 in four cities -- Boston, Detroit, Atlanta, and Los Angeles (Bobo et al. 2000).  There were almost 9000 respondents, including over 3000 blacks.  In the MCSUI data, just over a quarter of African Americans had earned college degrees.  But light-skinned blacks were more likely to have a college degree than were medium- or dark-skinned blacks; conversely, dark- and medium-skinned members were less likely to have completed high school.  Put another way, dark-skinned blacks received on average 12.2 years of schooling; medium-skinned blacks received 12.5 years, and light-skinned blacks enjoyed 12.9 years of schooling. The results are highly statistically significant. Although these are not huge substantive differences, the gap between finishing high school and achieving a year of college education is very meaningful for one’s life chances. (For similar results using different data sets, see Keith and Herring 1991; Hunter 2002; Allen, Telles and Hunter 2000; Seltzer and Smith 1991; and Krieger, Sidney and Coakley 1998).          

The same pattern holds for income.  Mean family incomes range from about $23,200 for the dark-skinned, to $24,800 for the medium-skinned, to $25,900 for the light-skinned.  Put another way, families of dark-skinned African Americans enjoy about nine-tenths as much income as families of light-skinned African Americans.  This too is not a trivial difference; in 1994, the mean family income for blacks was almost two-thirds that of whites. (For similar findings, see the articles cited above, as well as Edwards 1972; Keith and Herring 1991;  Murguia and Telles 1996; Cotton 1997; Hill 2000; Gomez 2000; Bowman, Muhammad and Ifatunji 2004).

MCSUI is the most recent survey to report skin color, but it lacks a nationally representative sample.  To compensate for that problem, we conducted similar analyses of the National Survey of Black Americans  conducted in 1979-80 (Jackson and Gurin 1987).  The results were similar.  In a year when blacks’ averaged about ten years of schooling, there is a gap of almost two years between the schooling of the darkest and lightest African Americans.  Dark-skinned blacks earned less than seven tenths as much as light-skinned blacks – during a year in which black families’ mean income was just over six tenths of that of white families.

Among incarcerated felons, skin color is associated with sentence length more strongly than is race per se, at least in the state of Georgia. The Georgia Department of Corrections provides an astonishing amount of information for all incarcerated felons, including their criminal history, the crime for which they were convicted, race, skin color and other physical characteristics, and measures of income, education, family situation, and other characteristics.  Traci Burch has analyzed this information for about 90,500 black and whites inmates from 1996 through 2002. Averaging across all inmates regardless of crime, whites received sentences about 265 days shorter, about 10 percent shorter, than those of blacks.  However, compared with whites, light-skinned blacks received sentences that were 22 days longer, medium-skinned blacks received sentences about 300 days longer, and dark-skinned blacks received fully 400 days more on their sentences --  about 15 percent longer that that of whites or the lightest African Americans (Burch 2005).

Being dark-skinned has psychological as well as economic, educational, and temporal costs. “Perceivers [of pictures of individuals] do notice skin tone and can use it as an organizing cue, suggesting that skin tone is a basis of categorization among both Black and White perceivers.”  That strong cue matters because “participants [in another experiment] listed a greater number of negative traits for dark-skinned targets compared to positive traits.... The opposite pattern emerged for light-skinned targets.”  Both blacks and whites behaved in similar ways (Maddox and Gray 2002).[6]  Less systematic evidence also shows that blacks, especially men, perceive light skin to make people more attractive as a dating or marriage partner (Bond and Cash 1992; Ross 1997; Hill 2002; Hunter 2002), or adoptive child (McRoy and Grape 1999; Kennedy 2003). [7]

In short, African Americans’ skin color is related to a variety of factors that make one’s life more or less enjoyable. There are two plausible explanations: “colorism” may be a direct response to the behavior of or, more likely, the appearance of a person standing before the potential employer, judge, or teacher.  Or it may emerge as an indirect effect of the person’s ability to take advantage of the higher social status that has accrued over many generations to light-skinned African-Americans. Both explanations turn out to be involved.

Thus factors that frequently influence how much schooling a person attains -- parents’ education and work status, immigrant and citizenship status, Hispanic nationality, and English language ability – do indeed play a role in MCSUI.  Light-skinned blacks tend to come from families with relatively high status on these dimensions, so skin tone affects educational attainment indirectly.  In addition, there remains a direct effect of skin color.  After taking account of family status (plus other controls), going from dark to light complexion increases educational attainment by approximately 0.3 years for blacks. That result is highly significant statistically, and is similar to the results found by others. (See citations listed above as well as   Hill 2000; Hughes and Hertel 1990; Telles and Murguia 1990; Allen et al. 2000).  Family incomes in MCSUI show the same pattern; family status affects one’s income and is associated with skin color, and blacks’ family income rises as one moves from dark to light, regardless of one’s family background.  The same patterns hold for NSBA data.   

The data on sentence length for Georgia’s inmates similarly hold up in more sophisticated analyses. When controls are added for type of crime, “light- and medium-skinned blacks received shorter sentences for all crimes than the darkest category of blacks.  In every case except property crimes [i.e. for drug, personal, and miscellaneous crimes], the darkest group of blacks received higher sentences, on average, than whites” (Burch 2005: 25-26). With a full array of controls (e.g. for the number of prior offenses, employment, poverty, marital status, education, or age), sentences are 2 percent shorter for light-skinned blacks compared with whites, 4 percent longer for medium-skinned blacks, and 2 percent longer for dark-skinned blacks. Those differences seem small, but 4 percent of a 2,560 day sentence (the average length for whites) is over three months of prison time.

These results demonstrate discrimination and disadvantage even beyond the consequences of belonging to a race at the bottom of the United States’ racial order.   It is just as unfair to be treated well or badly because of what you or your ancestors looked like as because of the racial group to which you are attributed or with which you identify.


Skin Color and Political Attitudes or Behaviors: Given that light-skinned African Americans are relatively advantaged in the social and economic arenas, it is plausible that they have a similar advantage as voters and political actors, and that dark-skinned blacks perceive more discrimination.  It is similarly plausible, a priori, that people who are deeply angered by the unfairness of racial discrimination would be equally exercised by the unfairness of skin color discrimination. The minimal evidence available, however, suggests that neither expectation holds very firmly.

            The first surprise is how little research there has been on the relationship between skin tone and politics. In three years of careful searching, we have found exactly one published article within political science that addresses the topic, and it only used skin color as a variable on the way toward its central focus on symbolic racism (Terkildsen 1993).  That is the first indicator that the politics of skin color bear little resemblance to the politics of race.

            My co-authors and I examined the two surveys I have been discussing (along with others), to see if skin tone was related to political participation (registering to vote, voting, acting in campaigns), a sense of linked fate with other blacks, and perceptions of discrimination against oneself or one’s group.  The outcome was surprising, and rather uninspiring. Of the eighteen results, only four show a statistically significantly different response by skin tone. Light-skinned blacks may be slightly more likely to perceive discrimination against other members of their race, and they are a little more likely to participate politically.  On the first survey, dark-skinned blacks express a stronger sense of linked fate, but on the second survey fifteen years later, light-skinned blacks do. And even these results largely disappear when we add controls for family background.

            This set of findings leaves us with two puzzles.  First, although dark-skinned blacks suffer more in schools, the labor market, the criminal justice system, and interpersonal relationships, if the survey results can be believed they perceive slightly less discrimination against their race, are possibly less committed to group ties by the 1990s, and are slightly less likely to voice their concerns or make claims in the political arena.  It is a curious configuration, and one that people committed to racial equity presumably ought to be concerned about.  More generally, the pattern is weak statistically and substantively; the main result is that political dynamics do not accord well with the strong social and economic dynamics that every researcher has found with regard to skin color. So why isn’t colorism an issue around which blacks organize politically?

            But maybe that question is premature; perhaps the effects of skin tone discrimination show up in policy preferences, if not in political activity or attitudes.  Here too, the data are frustratingly thin, since only the 1982 General Social Survey has a series of questions about policy views as well as a skin tone measure for blacks. But the results add a degree of poignancy to the puzzles just described.  Only one difference is statistically significant, although seven of the eleven relevant items in that survey have a skin color difference of more than 6 percentage points (in the rest, there is essentially no difference). In all seven, light-skinned blacks are more likely to support increases in government spending than are dark-skinned blacks. Thus darker African Americans are probably a little more fiscally conservative, which is not what we normally expect from people who suffer from greater discrimination. 

  We are left, then, with two puzzles. First, why do African Americans in general not act politically to challenge the disparities in accord with skin color with which they live every day and which have important effects on their lives?  Black Americans are certainly aware of and angry about racial unfairness, which is in some sense also about appearance or even skin tone – so why not skin tone within the race?  Second and more particularly, why don’t dark-skinned blacks express any anger about the fact that they suffer from more discrimination in society and the economy than do even other blacks, who are lighter-skinned?

For leverage on answering those questions, I turn briefly to a different arena where there is an equally puzzling indifference to economic inequality and lack of anger at unfairness on the part of the sufferers -- but a great deal more research.


What’s the Matter with Kansas?

That is the title of a recent book by Thomas Frank, seeking to understand “why... so many Americans vote against their economic and social interests” (Frank 2004).  This is not a new question. A century ago, Werner Sombart asked, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” (Sombart 1976 (1906)), and several decades ago I sought to understand American beliefs about distributive justice by asking people “What’s fair?” (Hochschild 1981).  Most recently, Larry Bartels has analyzed why “Homer gets a tax cut” of a few dollars and is pleased with it, while plutocrats rub their hands in glee at the money bags surrounding them (Bartels 2005).

            Scholars have suggested an array of answers to this perennial question. Some focus on the general lack of attention to class in American politics (corresponding to blacks’ lack of political engagement with skin tone discrimination), and others on the absence of protest by the poor (corresponding to dark-skinned blacks’ lack of anger at their “excess” discrimination).  For the nineteenth century, explanations range from a Hartzian liberal tradition in America (Hartz 1955), to the early enfranchisement of most white men, racism and nativism that divided the working class, powerful federal courts that reinforced owners and undermined labor, the safety valve of an “empty” western frontier, repression of labor activists and political radicals, a geographically-based two-party system, and more.  Answers for the twentieth century include all of the above, along with additional factors such as patterns of (non)mobilization by political parties, the growth of political action groups and intense minorities with disproportionate influence, the revival of religious fundamentalism as a political force, the pressure for immigrants to “become” white rather than ally with poor blacks, and the narrow range of available policy options presented to the public. Rather than try to sort through this voluminous literature, I will use it to suggest two very different sets of reasons for African Americans’ relative lack of distress at skin color discrimination.  I focus here only on possible reasons within individuals’ conceptualizations, setting aside institutional structures and parties or movements for another day.


Unenlightened Self-Interest:  Most analyses in the “why no socialism?” genre, including those of Frank, Bartels, and myself as well as Sombart, imply that poor Americans are mistaken in their views. They ought to recognize an exploitative class structure, perceive that the extant level of economic inequality is unfair, understand that some sort of redistribution (if not socialism) is in their interests, and express outrage at their dismal situation.  What blocks these perceptions is what needs to be explained. Beyond the aggregate-level answers suggested above, explanations at the level of individual beliefs or perceptions for quiescence of the poor or lack of generalized attention to class conflict include: lack of education or too much “mainstream” education, consensual norms or values that get in the way of undistorted understandings, attachment to the status attendant on whiteness (where relevant), and political ignorance. Bartels invokes a concept of unenlightened self interest in analyzing support for the strongly upwardly redistributive tax cuts of 2001 and 2002:

(O)rdinary people...[supported the cuts] on the basis of simple-minded and sometimes misguided considerations of self-interest.... Public opinion in this instance was ill informed, insensitive to some of the most important implications of the tax cuts, and largely disconnected from (or misconnected to) a variety of relevant values and material interests (Bartels 2005: 21, abstract).

Applying this logic to the case of skin color discrimination, we can see light-skinned blacks as roughly analogous to middle-class Americans – certainly not at the top of the distribution, but enjoying enough benefits from the unfair structure that they would be hesitant to disrupt it too much. And dark-skinned blacks are then roughly analogous to the poor Americans who are “largely disconnected from (or misconnected to) a variety of relevant values and material interests.” The implication is that dark-skinned blacks ought to perceive that they are doubly maltreated, that skin color hierarchy is just as unfair as the racial hierarchy within which it nests, and that protest is warranted.  Why don’t they? Presumably for the same kinds of reasons as above, i.e. lack of education or too much “mainstream” education, widely-shared norms or values that get in the way of undistorted understandings, and political disconnection.

            That seems a plausible argument, and in principle a testable one (although my co-authors and I have not yet been able to examine it empirically).  It has two variants, with quite different connotations.  One is highly critical of this situation of unenlightened self-interest, and focuses mostly on the vexing issue of why the worst-off don’t resist their exploitation.  Just as poor Americans exhibit false consciousness, or are subjected to the third face of power (Gaventa 1980), so dark-skinned African Americans are kept from protesting their extra layer of disadvantage by an overly-strong sense of racial pride, mistaken perception of shared discrimination, or simply unawareness of any alternatives to the life they have always known.  I know of no one who has made this argument directly, but it is not too far a leap from other research that expresses concern for African Americans who are more than usually harmed by the combination of external racial hostility and internal group differentiation.  Cathy Cohen, for example, castigates institutions within the black community as well as whites for ignoring or excluding gay or lesbian African Americans or those with HIV/AIDS (Cohen 1999). Marion Orr criticizes black middle class officials and activists in Baltimore who have turned the public school system into more of an employment regime than an agency for educating and helping desperately poor black children (Orr 1999).  Adolph Reed has attacked black churches and politicians for complacency in the face of deep poverty and powerlessness (Reed 1986). In short, one can argue that lack of attention to the unfairness of skin-color discrimination is evidence of harmful distortions in the black community, similar to the harmful distortions that keep poor Americans from challenging the unfair advantages of the rich.

            A second variant of the argument about unenlightened self-interest is more neutral, and focuses mostly on the more general issue of why blacks don’t attend to skin-tone concerns in the political arena despite their impact in other arenas of life.  In this view, the lack of attention is explained by channels of communication and socialization, long-standing patterns of belief, party or interest group organization, psychic “morselization,” and other factors that do not implicitly or explicitly blame anyone.  Thus scholars have long studied socialization practices in home and schools (Jennings and Niemi 1974; Sears 1975; Burns, Schlozman and Verba 2001), the centrality of the median voter in a two-party system (MacKuen, Erikson and Stimson 2002), the role of resources and organizational skills in giving greater political voice to those of higher socioeconomic status (Verba, Schlozman and Brady 1995),  and people’s tendency not to connect the bits of information or perceptions that they carry in their head (Lane 1962; Converse 1964).  In parallel fashion, perhaps “what drives black ‘linked fate’ and perceived discrimination uniformity across skin tones is the fact that as a group, blacks are exposed to many of the same information sources and networks that promote a certain view.  [Common] information sources, scholarly research, and ideological strains get passed along throughout members of the community” (personal communication from Traci Burch, December 1, 2004).  Research indeed shows that African Americans share, more than most other groups in American society, a counterpublic of radio and television, print media, sermons, and informal conversations in racially distinct public and private places (Dawson 1994; Harris-Lacewell 2004).  Since the decline of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA movement, with its insistence that only dark-skinned blacks were full and legitimate members of the race, black political parties, cultural leaders, and social movements have stressed solidarity and group cohesion in the face of a hostile external world.  Internal differentiation by skin color came to be seen as shameful and something to be suppressed, at least in public discourse.  At the same time, the white world of public policy-makers was moving in the same direction.  The census stopped measuring “mulattos” by 1930, after eight decades of doing so, and policy-makers completely reversed course by developing and elaborating ever-more-stringent “one drop of blood” laws in a majority of states. Thus blacks have for many decades had little access to a politically legitimated discourse within the community around questions of skin color, and no set of organizations or activities to turn to in order to engage these issues in the public arena.  Small wonder that attention to complexion has almost disappeared from politics [8]– just as attention to class disparities has similarly almost disappeared among Americans in general after the radicalism of the nineteenth century.


“We vote our values; why should we be surprised if they vote theirs?”  A second set of explanations for why Americans are not organized along class lines or why poor Americans endorse politicians who promote the upward redistribution of wealth starts from a different premise.  Rather than assuming that politics ought to be organized around class conflict, or that poor Americans ought to seek downward redistribution and we need to explain why they do not, perhaps one should assume that poor Americans care about other things more than material betterment. In that case, the task is to understand their values on their own terms.  After all, few scholars do research on why social scientists, with salaries in the top decile of the income distribution, consistently violate their economic self-interest by voting Democratic; why should we not accord the same respect to the poor? 

Applying this logic to the case of skin color discrimination yields several hypotheses.  Perhaps dark-skinned blacks are aware of their doubly unfair treatment, but choose to ignore it because they too care more about some other political value, such as racial solidarity or individual autonomy. Similarly, light-skinned African Americans may recognize, along with Lawrence Graham, that “for generations of black people, color and class have been inexorably tied together,” but they too care more about racial solidarity than about either taking advantage of or fighting this internal division.  For most blacks, in short, one form of unfairness may be worth accepting or ignoring publicly for the sake of fighting another, or simply pursuing some unrelated goal.

Like the arguments about unenlightened self-interest, this set of reasons for not making an issue of unfairness also has at least two variants. One is relatively neutral, seeking simply to explain the general phenomenon of lack of engagement. Values, such as making the polity more responsive to religious convictions or preserving the natural environment for future generations, may trump economic interests.  Perhaps group loyalties – to region or state a century ago, to age cohort or people of the same sexual orientation now –supercede economic concerns.  For example, Henry Brady has mapped the allegiances of various groups of American voters in the 2000 election. He found that the Republican party lies closer in issue space than does the Democratic party to fundamentalist white Protestants, even though the fundamentalists’ average income is virtually identical with that of the average Democrat, and far below that of the average Republican (Brady 2001).  The deeply religious, in short, vote their values, not their interests. Andrea Campbell shows that the elderly mobilize to act jointly on behalf of social security, to the benefit of most but at the expense of the poorest (Campbell 2003).

In the arena of skin color discrimination, my co-authors and I are developing a parallel analysis of the historical transformation in the black community that led people to stop focusing on skin-tone unfairness and even to deny its existence. At the turn of the twentieth century, both black and white media frequently used “mulatto” (and sometimes “quadroon” and “octoroon”) – sometimes favorably, sometimes unfavorably, but to a surprising degree simply as a common and unremarkable descriptor. By the end of the twentieth century, those descriptors were never used or were terms of opprobrium or shock.  In NSBA, for example, only 21 percent of black respondents agree that whites treat them differently because of their color, and only 18 percent say that blacks do so.[9]

Why did African Americans stop attending publicly to skin tone differences? Governmental actions partly explain this trajectory, as exemplified by the switch from classifying mulattos in the census to moving all people with even “one drop of blood” into the category of black.  So does the spread of black nationalist sentiment through charismatic spokespersons such as Malcolm X and through greater attention to the media by an increasingly educated audience. The trajectory can also be tied to the growth and outreach of black advocacy movements such as the NAACP and SCLC. There may be other reasons as well; the point here is that one can explain the lack of collective attention to the unfairness of skin tone discrimination by pointing to the dissemination of and allegiance to other, apparently stronger values.

Finally, the “alternative values” explanation for ignoring differences by skin tone can be itself highly normatively charged.  To some, even raising the issue is an attack on essential and precious racial solidarity or identity – that is the concern behind the comment of “That’s bullshit research.”  This set of explanations focuses on the particular question raised earlier -- why the worst-off in a group don’t protest the unfairness of their position -- and denies the legitimacy of that focus.  Here too, a comparison with the issue of “why no socialism?” can give perspective.  John Diggins moves beyond studying the role of religion in electoral politics, to deplore the weakened position of religious actors in the public sphere (Diggins 1984). Some feminists fear that too much attention to the disproportionate role of middle class white women in their movement, or to the special concerns of lesbian women, will create harmful divisions within it.  Environmentalists shrink from the label of “postmaterialist” because it draws attention to the material bases of their politics and wealth of their proponents; proponents of gay marriage fear that critics of “heteronormativity” will split their beleaguered movement (Josephson 2005). In short, advocates, especially for groups that see themselves as small and threatened, may be just as dismayed by internal disagreement or differentiation as by external attack (Walzer 1970). 

Analogously, vehement black nationalists or others angered by attention to skin color differentiation within the black community believe that that American society is still profoundly racist. In that context, they argue, racial solidarity, and arguably a robust black nationalism, are essential to combat the deep structures of racial hierarchy (for a distinction between the two, see Shelby 200X).  Racial nationalists have traditionally been hostile to black feminists or black Marxists who seek to draw attention to unfair practices within the black community (Dawson 2001); they are similarly hostile to any discussion of skin color differentiation because it appears to be a strategy of “divide and conquer.”  Such a discussion may be especially threatening when broached by an outsider, or raised in an arena outside the black counterpublic.


“Those Experiences Gave Me the Desire to Fight for the Disadvantaged”

Are the racial nationalists right?  Does attention to what might be a subsidiary form of unfairness harmfully distract from the urgent need to fight the deeper phenomenon of entrenched racism? Or should those concerned about fairness deplore inattention to any characteristic associated with discrimination and personal distress, especially one as deep-seated and wide-ranging as this one?

            In my view, the nationalists are wrong – unfairness is unfairness, and there are too many cases in history in which the demand for group solidarity inhibited fights against injustice well past the point of necessity. Racial hierarchy persists to an important degree in the United States, as does white racial animus, but the nation may have changed enough over the past half-century that those concerned about unfairness should turn their attention to something other than race, tout court. This argument needs much more development; here I can only sketch its contours.

Consider first the situation of the best off, the lightest skinned. For many blacks, attention to skin color hints at the possibility that the lightest members of a group might be emboldened to join, or at least hang around the edges of, a group higher up in the racial hierarchy, i.e. “mulattos,” multiracials, or even Anglos. (Fletcher quote) At the extreme, they might “pass” into mainstream white society, and become lost to their families and community. That phenomenon is almost uniformly condemned. But a few people argue that just as people have the right to change their religion, national loyalty, sexual orientation, even sex, so they should be granted the moral and political legitimacy of choosing to change their racial identification (Kennedy 2003); (Pfeiffer 2003); (Roth 2000).  Perhaps ignoring skin color discrimination is unfair to those who gain relatively from it as well as those who lose.

            I am more persuaded by the situation of the worst off, the darkest skinned.  I cannot find any plausible argument for ignoring the unfairness of their plight, unless one can make a case that opening the Pandora’s box of attention to skin color will make them even worse off than they are now.  But it is hard to see how.

That brings me to the most difficult issues: whether the United States remains as racially structured as it has historically been and if so, whether racial solidarity is the best way to deal with persistent racial hierarchy.  Those questions will never be answered definitively, unless with the hindsight of centuries -- the evidence is too complex, we have no way of agreeing on the correct counterfactuals, and the questions are only partly empirical anyway.  Racial solidarity was essential for breaking the log jam of Jim Crow segregation in the south and the less legal but equally entrenched white domination in the north.  If we are really at the end of the second reconstruction, as many believe, racial solidarity, which includes avoidance of airing dirty linen in public, may be equally necessary over the next century.  

In my view, however, given demographic, socioeconomic, and political changes, the United States is probably past the point where racial solidarity should dominate all other values, or even to the point where it is sometimes counterproductive. Maintenance of racial boundaries at the expense of attention to unfair treatment of people within the boundaries is now hard to justify. I hope instead that others will follow the path of Emil Jones Jr., quoted in the second epigraph to this paper, so that the shaming attendant on being “too dark” as a child galvanizes people to “fight for the disadvantaged” when they become adults.

To return, then, to the question that I was asked to discuss: when does fairness become an issue?  If we reverse the conditions under which unfairness is not noticed or protested, we can generate a rough list of when it might be.  Black Americans will protest skin tone discrimination when they perceive American race relations to be sufficiently improved that racial solidarity is not the primary value to which they must always attend.  They will probably also need clear cues from trusted media, honored leaders, laws, systems of classification such as the census, and other sources.  These sources will need to emphasize that public attention to variations within the African American population, based on things ranging from appearance to ideology, need not undermine a sense of group identity or affiliation; boundaries can be made more porous without dissolving. Dark-skinned blacks may, like Emil Jones Jr., be motivated by their own unhappy experiences with colorism; lighter-skinned blacks or the black community as a whole will be more affected by more general institutional or structural conditions.  In the end, demographic changes may galvanize society-wide attention to discrimination by skin color among all Americans, but that is the subject of another paper.





Allen, W., E. Telles, and M. Hunter (2000). Skin Color, Income and Education: A Comparison of African Americans and Mexican Americans. National Journal of Sociology.  12 (1): 129-180.

Bartels, L. (2005). Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind. Perspectives on Politics.  3 (1): 15-31.

Bobo, L., et al. (2000). Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, 1992-1994: [Household Survey Data] [Computer file]. 3rd ICPSR version Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.

Bond, S. and  T. Cash (1992). Black Beauty: Skin Color and Body Images among African American College Women. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.  22 (11): 874-888.

Bowman, P., R. Muhammad, and M. Ifatunji (2004). Skin Tone, Class, and Racial Attitudes among African Americans. in Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the 'Color-Blind' Era. Ed. C. Herring, V. Keith, and H. Horton. Chicago IL: University of Illinois Press. pp. 128-158.

Brady, H. (2001). Trust the People: Political Party Coalitions and the 2000 Election. in The Unfinished Election of 2000. Ed. J. Rakove. New York: Basic  Books. pp. 39-73.

Burch, T. (2005). Skin Color and the Criminal Justice System: Beyond Black-White Disparities in Sentencing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Department of Government,

Burns, N., K. Schlozman, and S. Verba (2001). The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Butler, D. (1999). Shades of Guilt: A Mass Media Effects Experiment Answering Why Dark Skin Implies Guilt for Jurors. University of Connecticut, ??

Campbell, A. (2003). How Policies Make Citizens: Senior Political Activism and the American Welfare State. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cohen, C. J. (1999). The Boundaries of Blackness : AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Converse, P. (1964). The Nature of Belief Systems in a Mass Public. in Ideology and Discontent. Ed. D. Apter. New York: Free Press. pp. XXX.

Cotton, J. (1997). Color or Culture? Wage Differences among Non-Hispanic Black Males, Hispanic Black Males, and Hispanic White Males. in African Americans and Post-Industrial Labor Markets. Ed. J. Stewart. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. pp. 61-75.

Dawson, M. (1994). A Black Counterpublic?: Economic Earthquakes, Racial Agenda(s), and Black Politics. Public Culture.  7: 195-223.

--- (2001). Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.

Diggins, J. (1984). The Lost Soul of American Politics. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.

Edwards, O. (1972). Skin Color as a Variable in Racial Attitudes of Black Urbanites. Journal of Black Studies.  3 (4): 473-483.

Frank, T. (2004). What's the Matter with Kansas? : How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Gaventa, J. (1980). Power and Powerlessness : Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Gomez, C. (2000). The Continual Significance of Skin Color: An Exploratory Study of Latinos in the Northeast. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences.  22 (1): 94-103.

Graham, L. (2000). Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class. New York: Harper.

Harburg, E. e. a. (1978). Skin Color, Ethnicity, and Blood Pressure I: Detroit Blacks. American Journal of Public Health.  68 (12): 1177-1183.

Harris-Lacewell, M. (2004). Barbershops, Bibles, and BET : Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hartz, L. (1955). The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Hill, M. (2000). Color Differences in the Socioeconomic Status of African American Men: Results of a Longitudinal Study. Social Forces.  78 (4): 1437-1460.

--- (2002). Skin Color and the Perception of Attractiveness among African Americans: Does Gender Make a Difference? Social Psychology Quarterly.  65 (1): 77-91.

Hochschild, J. (1981). What's Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Hochschild, J., T. Burch, and V. Weaver (2004). Effects of Skin Color Bias in SES on Political Activities and Attitudes. Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association,  xxx.

Hughes, M. and  B. Hertel (1990). The Significance of Color Remains: A Study of Life Chances, Mate Selection, and Ethnic Consciousness Among Black Americans. Social Forces.  68 (4): 1105-1120.

Hunter, M. (2002). "If You're Light You're Alright:" Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color. Gender & Society.  16 (2): 175-193.

Jackson, J. and  G. Gurin (1987). National Survey of Black Americans, 1979-1980 [machine-readable data file]. 1st ICPSR ed. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.

Jennings, M. K. and  R. Niemi (1974). The Political Character of Adolescence : The Influence of Families and Schools. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Johnson, J. J., W. J. Farrell, and J. Stoloff (1998). The Declining Social and Economic Fortunes of African American Males: A Critical Assessment of Four Perspectives. Review of Black Political Economy.  25 (4): 17-40.

Josephson, J. (2005). Citizenship, Same-Sex Marriage, and Feminist Critiques of Marriage. Perspectives on Politics.  3 (2): 269-284.

Keith, V. and  C. Herring (1991). Skin Tone and Stratification in the Black Community. American Journal of Sociology.  97 (3): 760-778.

Kennedy, R. (2003). Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. New York: Pantheon Books.

Krieger, N., S. Sidney, and E. Coakley (1998). Racial Discrimination and Skin Color in the CARDIA Study: Implications for Public Health Research. American Journal of Public Health.  88 (9): 1308-1313.

Lane, R. (1962). Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does. New York: Free Press.

MacKuen, M., R. Erikson, and J. Stimson (2002). The Macro Polity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maddox, K. and  S. Gray (2002). Cognitive Representations of Black Americans: Reexploring the Role of Skin Tone. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  28 (2): 250-259.

McRoy, R. and  H. Grape (1999). Skin Color in Transracial and Inracial Adoptive Placements: Implications for Special Needs Adoptions. Child Welfare.  78 (5): 673-692.

Metzer, J. and  R. Margo (1990). Union Army Recruits in Black Regiments in the United States, 1862-1865 [Computer file] Ann Arbor, MI:: University of Michigan, Inter-university  Consortium for Political and Social Research.

Murguia, E. and  E. Telles (1996). Phenotype and Schooling among Mexican Americans. Sociology of Education.  69 (4): 276-289.

O, G. Blacks Lag Behind Whites in Life Satisfaction.

Orr, M. (1999). Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore, 1986-1998. Lawrence KS: University Press of Kansas.

Pfeiffer, K. (2003). Race Passing and American Individualism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Reed, A. (1986). The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Robinson-English, T. (2005). Statehouse Clout. Ebony, April: 150-154.

Ross, L. (1997). Mate Selection Preferences among African American College Students. Journal of Black Studies.  27 (4): 554-569.

Roth, P. (2000). The Human Stain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Russell, K., M. Wilson, and R. Hall (1992). The Color Complex : The Politics of Skin Color among African Americans. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Sears, D. (1975). Political Socialization. in Handbook of Political Science: Vol. 2, Micropolitical Theory. Ed. F. Greenstein and  N. Polsby. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley. pp. 93-153.

Seltzer, R. and  R. Smith (1991). Color Differences in the Afro-American Community and the Differences They Make. Journal of Black Studies.  21 (3): 279-286.

Smith, T. and  G. Dempsey (1983). Ethnic Social Distance and Prejudice. Public Opinion Quarterly.  47 (4): 584-600.

Sombart, W. (1976 (1906)). Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? White Plains NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Telles, E. and  E. Murguia (1990). Phenotypic Discrimination and Income Differences among Mexican Americans. Social Science Quarterly.  71 (4): 682-696.

Terkildsen, N. (1993). When White Voters Evaluate Black Candidates: The Processing Implications of Candidate Skin Color, Prejudice, and Self-Monitoring. American Journal of Political Science.  37 (4): 1932-1053.

Uhlmann, E., et al. (2004). Subgroup Prejudice Based on Skin Color among Hispanics in the United States and Latin America. Social Cognition.  20 (3): 198-226.

Verba, S., K. L. Schlozman, and H. Brady (1995). Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Wagatsuma, H. (1968). The Social Perception of Skin Color in Japan. in Color and Race. Ed. J. H. Franklin. Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin Co. pp. 129-165.

Walzer, M. (1970). Obligations : Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.





* My thanks to Traci Burch and Vesla Weaver of Harvard University, my co-authors of the larger project from which this paper is derived. They are not responsible for the arguments in this particular paper.  Thanks also to Victoria Hattam for very helpful comments, and the Guggenheim Foundation, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Mellon Foundation, and Weatherhead Center for International Affairs of Harvard University for financial and institutional support for this project.

  1. By “fairness” in this paper, I generally mean simply the absence of discriminatory treatment based on morally arbitrary characteristics such as race, ethnicity, or skin color.  What is fair in the economic arena is more complicated; for this paper (and ignoring the ambiguities and complexities in so doing), I define it as the absence of exploitative treatment of the relatively poor by the relatively rich. 
  2. With less certainty, I predict the same for Hispanics.  Lack of certainty in that case stems from the indeterminacy of whether Hispanics in the United States are becoming racialized as a distinct group or are best thought of as a loosely-linked ethnicity with many races, some of which are on the way to “becoming” white. We address this issue in the book project, but not in this paper.
  3. The first person to file legal charges of color discrimination was a light-skinned black woman who believed that she was being harassed by her darker-skinned supervisor (Russell, Wilson and Hall 1992: 124-26).  Suits claiming the opposite have also been filed; so far, no one has won damages on the grounds of discrimination by color, as distinguished from race or ethnicity.
  4. As Graham implies, there is a strong relationship between skin tone and physical features, so that darker blacks are also often more Afrocentric looking, while lighter blacks have more Eurocentric features. There is very little systematic recent research on this point, but note that skin color in this analysis also implies the other features usually associated with light or dark skin.
  5. Skin color hierarchies appear in other groups also, of course. An ancient Japanese proverb holds that “white skin makes up for seven defects” (quoted in Wagatsuma 1968: 129). Light- and dark-skinned Latinos often see themselves as, and are perceived to be, members of different races.  Light-skinned northern European immigrants have had higher standing in the eyes of fellow (white) Americans than have darker-skinned southern Europeans. On one scale, for example, all ten northern European nationalities were preferred to all eight southern nationalities in repeated measures from the 1920s through the 1970s. The single exception was Italians, who make it into the top five preferred groups by 1977 (Smith and Dempsey 1983: 588).
  6. The same pattern held among Latinos and Latin Americans in two parallel experiments:

“When implicit attitudes were examined, both American Hispanics and Chileans expressed strong preference for the lighter complexioned subgroup (‘Blanco’ in Spanish) over the darker complexioned subgroup (‘Moreno’ in Spanish) within their ethnic ingroup. Implicit preference for Blancos was evident among self-identified Moreno as well as Blanco participants in both countries” (Uhlmann et al. 2004: abstract).

  1. Compared with light-skinned blacks, dark-skinned blacks also have higher rates of unemployment (Johnson, Farrell and Stoloff 1998); greater likelihood of high blood pressure (Harburg 1978); and lower self-esteem (Davis and Daniels 1998 – get from Traci).  They experience more direct discrimination  (Klonoff and Landrine  2000—get from Traci) and may be more likely to convicted by juries than light-skinned African Americans (Butler 1999).
  2. Attention to skin color has not completely disappeared.  In campaigns between two African Americans, the darker-skinned candidate (or his surrogates – to my knowledge, it has always been men) occasionally points to a difference in skin tone as a way of claiming greater racial authenticity.  The same phenomenon may occur among Latino candidates, although the dynamic is weaker and complicated by claims of authenticity based on language use or recency of immigration. Skin color and ethnic differentiation used to be common trope in campaigns between white candidates; it is less common now that white ethnic groups are so intermingled.; In the 2004 senatorial election in Kentucky, however, one white candidate accused the other, who was of Italian extraction, of looking like Saddam Hussein’s sons.  (The accuser won reelection) .
  3. True to form, light-skinned blacks are more likely to say that blacks treat them differently because of their skin color (p=.000). We do not know just what anyone means in answering this frustratingly ambiguous question.