Colorism and School-to-Work and School-to-College Transitions of African American Adolescents

Colorism and School-to-Work and School-to-College Transitions of African American Adolescents

Race and Social Problems
Volume 5, Issue 1 (March 2013)
pages 15-27
DOI: 10.1007/s12552-012-9081-7

Igor Ryabov, Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, Texas

Using multinomial logistic modeling, the current study estimated the impact of skin tone on school-to-work and school-to-college transitions of African American youths. The findings suggest that African American males with the lightest skin tone were more likely to find a job and to be in college than their co-racial peers with darker skin tones. The odds of finding a full-time job were also significantly higher for African American females with the lightest skin tone. Generally, the multivariate results reveal that among the effects examined in this study, the family background factors, marital status, prior achievement, and average school socioeconomic status matter the most.


Colorism, the favoring of light complexion over dark complexion, has traditionally been important to our acceptance of racialized identities of Black folks in the United States. Complexion, along with other features of Eurocentric phenotypc—blue. gray, or green eyes; straight hair; thinlips: and a narrow nose—has always been considered valuable both within and outside the African American community. Eurocentric phenotype plays a central role in defining standards of beauty and governs both status and treatment. On the other hand, dark skin tone and Afrocentric features—broad nose, curly hair, and thick lips—have been devalued. The hierarchy of these phenotypic trails has implied that people of predominantly African ancestry with more European features are viewed as being more attractive and intelligent than those with few of none of these features.

An abundant literature has shown the many ways in which colorism affects the African American community (Bodenhorn 2006; Bodenhorn and Ruebeck 2007). One of the major streams of research has been the advantages of light skin complexion for upward social mobility. Much emphasis has been placed on the intergenerational mobility of light- versus darker-complected African Americans, while very little research has directly examined the intragenerational social mobility and. specifically, the influence of colorism on school-to-work and school-to-collegc transitions of African American adolescents. Although studies of adolescent transitions are abundant, one issue with these studies is that they usually treat African Americans as homogeneous group and do not account for the effects of colorism. This paper attempted to address this shortcoming in the literature and to explore the paths taken by black youths in the period immediately following their high school years. In addition to investigating cursory characteristics such as skin tone, the present study estimated the effect of a set of explanatory variables (school contextual factors, family effects, marital status, etc.) on the path that youths look in the period following their high school years. Of the three trajectories—college, work, and unemployment—the first two were considered as successful since both typically lead to the accumulation of skills either through formal study or learning on-the-job. Multinomial logistic regression was chosen as an appropriate statistical technique because the dependent variable was a set of more than two outcomes that could not he ordered in a meaningful way. With the purpose of investigating the aforementioned predictors of African American school-to-work and school-to-college transitions, we used the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (henceforth, the Add Health). The cogent rationale of using the Add Health was that it had collected information not only from adolescent respondents, but also from their parents or members of their peer network. Furthermore, this information was incorporated in the way to provide a complete account of all possible social interactions among adolescents and their parents. These data allowed the examination of the relative influences of school contextual factors and family influences on school-to-work transitions. Additionally, the Add Health is a longitudinal survey which implies that an insight can be gained about the causal order of the relationship between school-to-work transitions and school contextual factors.

Conceptual Framework

Complexion Advantage and Social Mobility

Historical accounts point to a consistent pattern of preference given by individuals, regardless of their race, and institutions to light-complected individuals (Bodenhorn 2003. 2006; Cole 2005; Edwards 1959; Frazier 1957; Myrdal et al. 1944; Keuter 1917). The advantages of a light complexion date back to slavery when blackness was defined as barbaric, savage, and ugly, whereas whiteness was associated with culture, virtue, and beauty. According to Reuter (1917) and Frazier (1957), a complexion advantage appeared early in the slavery era when the majority of slaveholders resented at sending light-complected slaves to field work, while letting them to participate in craft training and apprenticeship. Slaves of mixed ancestry were more likely to be granted domestic positions, better food and clothing, and manumission and educational opportunities (Cole 2005). Myrdal et al. (1944) wrote that slaves, more European in appearance, commanded higher prices in the slave market and were preferred as personal servants to white masters because they were considered to be more esthetically appealing and intellectually superior to slaves with pure African ancestry. Frazier (1957) claimed a fair complexion improved slaves’ chances of survival by significantly reducing their toil and chores, by improving their access to food and shelter, and by exposure to the culture of whites, including their manners, dress, and linguistic conventions. Moreover, visible white ancestry became the basis of differential access to privilege not only among slaves, but also among free persons of color. Light-complected, mixed-race free mulattos were also more likely to be literate, and their superiority over dark-complecled free blacks was widely accepted in the free black population as a whole as a result of the status advantages and similarities between whites and mulattos in physical appearance, speech, dress, and behavior (Edwards 1959).

Differences in socioeconomic characteristics by skin tone lingered long after slavery. In the antebellum South, free light-complected blacks became the social and economic elite of black communities. Although their jobs as small businessmen and service workers with white patrons were not prestigious in the modem sense, these were privileged positions compared with the opportunities available to their darker contemporaries. Socially, elite groups of light-complected blacks erected walls between themselves and the dark-complected masses by avoiding intermarriage with darker blacks, continuing their associations with whiles, and passing their advantages on to their children. This is how the original mulatto elite maintained its in-group privileged status until the beginning of the twentieth century. Even now for many people of African descent, black is not black: Lightness begets access to in-group privileges, rather than whiteness alone. Evidence from some analysts implies that skin tone effects on socioeconomic status are as potent now as in the past (Bowman et al. 2004; Goldsmith et al. 2006; Thompson and Keith 2001).

Colorism: How it Works

Although the exact mechanism is not known, understanding how this process works is largely limited to social psychology, Sumner (1906) was among the first to notice the general tendency of human beings to rank themselves according to group membership. He coined the distinction between in-group and out-group and suggested that preference for in-groups over out-groups is a universal characteristic of social existence. According to theories of implicit social cognition, we universally share positive feelings about the in-groups while simultaneously prefer to distance ourselves from out-group members in a diverse social environment (Banaji 2001; Banaji and Dasgupla 1998; Dovidio et al. 2002;  Greenwald et al. 2002; Uhlmann et al. 2002). It is important to stress, however, that privileges may be granted to those in the in-group by both members of the in-group and out-group. For example, teachers and potential employers make attributions regarding who is and who is not smart, competent, etc., based on the implicit biases learned from the environment and related to the ways society relates lighter skin with attractiveness, intelligence, competence, and likeability (Lovejoy 2001: Maddox and Gray 2002).

Several studies have found that dark-complected African Americans are more likely to report racial discrimination at work than light-complected African Americans (e.g.. Hill 2002; Keith and Herring 1991; Seltzer and Smith 1991)…

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