Tributes to Sheldon Seevak

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Posted August 27, 2008 in Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping
Brent Staples, "As Racism Wanes, Colorism Persists," NY Times (August 22, 2008)

A few years ago, I sat down to read Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950’s New York, by the novelist Anne Bernays and her husband, the biographer Justin Kaplan.

I was cruising along, as calmly as you please, when I came to an eye-opening passage about the once-famous New York lunch-counter chain, “Chock full o’ Nuts.’’

The passage read: “The owner of Chock full o’ Nuts, a white man named William Black, advertised in the tabloids for ‘light colored counter help,’ an example of nth-degree discrimination.’’

I knew that employers had once ruled out black applicants with ads that listed whiteness as a job qualification. I knew from growing up in a black community during the 1950’s and 60’s that my lighter-skinned neighbors (and even one of my relatives) got jobs at dress shops and other businesses that turned away darker-skinned applicants.

And I also knew of black families in which siblings of the same parents came into the world with dramatically different skin tones, which often meant that they experienced the color-coded world in entirely different ways.

Even so, I was surprised to learn that the longstanding preference for lighter-skinned black people had been laid out in 20th Century newspaper ads.

I’ve begun to find those ads in the archives of old newspapers near the Pennsylvania factory town where I grew up. The skin-labeling was so common in the 40’s that black job seekers used it when advertising their skills.

In the “situations wanted’’ section, for example, cooks, chauffeurs and waitresses sometimes listed “light colored’’ as the primary qualification — ahead of experience, references, and the other important data.

They didn’t do this for a lark. They did it to improve their chances and to reassure white employers who, even though they hired African-Americans, found dark skin unpleasant or believed that their customers would.

The fetish for light skin and Eurocentric features is no longer brazenly spelled out in the want ads. But a growing body of research suggests that the preference plays a huge role in decisions of all kinds. Researchers tell us that it affects how people vote; who appears in Hollywood movies and television news shows; who gets hired and promoted in corporate America; and even who gets executed for murder.

To get an overview of how colorism works, you might start with an article entitled “The Skin Color Paradox and The American Racial Order,’’ published last year by Jennifer Hochschild and Vesla Weaver in the journal Social Forces. (Volume 86, Number 2, December 2007).

Among other things, the authors coded the appearances of all African-Americans elected to the House, the Senate, or a governorship, going back to 1865. They report that “light skinned [black people] have always been considerably overrepresented and dark-skinned blacks dramatically underrepresented as elected officials.’’

The authors carried out a disturbing study in which whites were asked to evaluate candidates for a hypothetical Senate election:

[T]he findings are clear and consistent with regard to skin color. Black candidates were punished regardless of skin color in elections where their opponent was white. However, when two black candidates opposed each other, lighter skin was an important predictor of candidate popularity and voting. In this condition, the light-skinned black candidate prevailed over his darker opponent by an astonishing 18 percentage points, a larger margin than any other treatment group received. Holding the candidate platform and respondent ideology constant, the probability of casting a vote for Candidate A increased by 21 percentage points going from the dark-skinned to light-skinned black candidate.

And there’s more:

Voters’ preferences for the lighter black held regardless of the racial predispositions of the subject. Respondents also rated the light-skinned black candidate as being more intelligent, more experienced, and more trustworthy than his dark-skinned opponent. Thus, black candidates were disadvantaged by race, but the support eroded even further when the candidate’s complexion was dark.

The country is moving away from the blunt-force racism that once banished black people to the other side of the Jim Crow line. But we have entered a period of secondary discrimination — or “colorism’’ — that will be difficult to overthrow.

This point was alluded to in the 1995 report by the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, entitled “Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital”:

Though it is mostly covert, our society has developed an extremely sophisticated, and often denied, acceptability index based on gradations in skin color. It is not as simple a system as the black/white/colored classifications that were used in South Africa. It is not legally permissible, but it persists just beneath the surface and it can be and is used as a basis for decision making, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. It is applied to African Americans, to American Indians, to Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, and to Hispanic Americans, who are described in a color shorthand of black, brown, yellow, and red, respectively.

These findings have been borne out in hiring experiments. Work by the T. Joel Wade and his associates at Bucknell University shows that light skin can have a powerful impact on hiring preferences — at least when men are doing the hiring. White participants in one study recommended hiring lighter-skinned subjects more often than darker-skinned subjects when the two had identical qualifications.

And let us not forget prison and death row. Lighter-skinned black people convicted of crimes appear to receive shorter sentences than darker people convicted of comparable offenses.

The Stanford University psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt and her colleagues report in the grimly titled article “Looking Deathworthy” that defendants in murder cases who were found to be stereotypically black — with broader noses, thicker lips and darker skin — were twice as likely to receive the death penalty, but only when the victims were white.

The biases outlined in these studies date back to slavery and to the social dynamics that dominated places like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Slave owners often favored near-white slaves — some of whom they had fathered — and gave them prominent places in the household. After all, the owners thought, the mixed race-ones are more trustworthy — and more like us.

It should frighten us as Americans to realize that we still view one another through patterns that have a genesis in slavery. Blunt force racism may indeed be on the wane. But the battle against this more subtle and insidious form of discrimination has clearly just begun.

Category: Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping