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Skin Color Effects on Political Attitudes — NOT

- February 18, 2008

Can you think of any demographic characteristic of a (potential) voter that is correlated with virtually all aspects of life except for his or her political attitudes? That is, political scientists have spent decades showing us that race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, religiosity, age, educational level, urbanicity, region of residence, marital situation, social or organizational attachments, union membership – and a bunch of other stuff – not only are associated with various aspects of private life but also with one’s partisan or policy attitudes, political identity, and political affiliations. All of those things are also associated with whether one runs for or is elected to office, at least in the United States. Now, think of a characteristic of a person that is related to his or her education, family income, perceived attractiveness, length of prison sentence for a given crime, likelihood of election to office, etc. – but not to his or her political attitudes. My co-authors and I inadvertently stumbled on just such an anomaly; it is skin color within a conventionally defined racial group.

I won’t go through the research findings here; suffice it to say that almost every scholar who has studied skin tone has found substantial social, economic, cultural, and psychological correlates. Almost no one had looked at political correlates, so when we were young and naïve (about six years ago), Traci Burch, Vesla Weaver, and I decided to do so, thinking that the topic would make for a nice article or short book. We used the seven national surveys with a skin tone measure for Blacks and Latinos. (There are no useable equivalent measures for Whites and Asian Americans.) We spent most of a year searching for patterns between skin tone and perceptions of discrimination against oneself or one’s racial or ethnic group, strength of group identification, partisanship or ideology, organizational membership, and anything else we could think of – and found essentially no pattern. Most correlations were inconsequential, and the few that seemed statistically or substantively significant went in all possible directions. Sometimes the dark-skinned perceived the most discrimination or were the most racially identified, sometimes the light-skinned, and sometimes those in the middle.

After massaging the data for a while to no avail, and then despairing for another while of all our wasted work, we finally realized that it was the very lack of pattern that was the interesting finding. (Trust an academic to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear if a publication is at stake!) The fact that skin tone is related to virtually all aspects of a person’s life except political attitudes makes it a very unusual variable, and opens a new window into the study of the American racial order.

This research is sensitive, even painful (at one conference, an audience member denounced us for “bullshit research”), but we are inching our way into a systematic analysis of the history, emotional valence, and political implications of what psychologists call “colorism.” Any reactions or suggestions for how to proceed would be most welcome!

(The December 2007 issue of Social Forces contains a report on some of our recent research on this topic. For an abstract, click here.)