Most discussions on race focus on conflicts between whites and generalized communities of color. A new study by “The Sentencing Project” expands our awareness of the impact of racial prejudices to include differences in how African-Americans of different skin tones are treated.
A recent study of women prisoners in North Carolina found that lighter complexioned Black inmates served less time than darker ones.
“The Impact of Light Skin on Prison Time for Black Female Offenders,” by Jill Viglione, Lance Hannon, and Robert DeFina of Villanova University, used a sample of 12, 158 women who were imprisoned between 1995 and 2009. Those who were perceived to be light skinned received sentences that were, on average, 12% shorter than their darker counterparts. The amount of actual time served was approximately 11% less. According to The Minority Brief, the study authors controlled factors including prior record, conviction date and weight; they also considered if the woman in question was serving time for robbery or homicide, which tend to carry long sentences.
This is not the first study to examine how having lighter skin can help a person of color make an easier way in the world. A 2006 University of Georgia study found that light-skinned black men are preferred by employers over dark men, regardless of qualifications. These new results regarding lighter black female prisoners fit in perfectly with previous findings.
In 2009, CNN health reported on a related study. Research evidence demonstrated that most participants held racist beliefs they were unaware of, which negatively impacted their choices in social situations. It’s not a stretch to predict the results of these combined phenomena: people in power will give preferential treatment to those perceived as closer to the white ideal our society promotes as an expression of unconscious racism.
African-Americans often discuss how colorism affects us within our ranks, but rarely consider how skin tone relates to our treatment by greater society. Recognizing this, we may want to reconsider how we judge our peers. It is possible that lighter and darker blacks have vastly different experiences that each group cannot perceive. If we talk about these differences, we might reach greater understanding.