Is There Colorism on the Campaign Trail?

Is There Colorism on the Campaign Trail?

The Root

Keli Goff
, Political Correspondent

Experts weighed in on when skin tone matters in politics and society.

(The Root) — The latest installment of CNN’s docuseries Black in America asked the question “Who Is Black in America?” and examined the issue of colorism: bias based not just on race but also on actual skin color. The news special cited well-documented research confirming that lighter-skinned immigrants earn more than their darker-skinned counterparts. But one topic the special did not explore is whether skin-color bias has a tangible impact on American politics, particularly at the national level.

Are Americans more likely to vote for a minority candidate who is lighter-skinned? The experts we spoke with said it appears so.

David A. Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank specializing in research relating to blacks, said that the numbers speak for themselves. “You can’t think of many [black politicians] who are very dark,” he noted.

To his point, most elected (as opposed to appointed) black American politicians who have broken a significant barrier have either been extremely light-skinned or part white. Examples include Edward Brooke, the first black senator to be popularly elected; Adam Clayton Powell Jr., New York’s first black congressman; Douglas Wilder, the first black governor in the U.S.; and David Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor. Then, of course, there is President Barack Obama, who is not as light as the others, but is also not dark — and whom most Americans are aware is of biracial parentage…

…In an interview with The Root, Yaba Blay, founder of the “(1)ne Drop” project and a consulting producer on “Who Is Black in America?” explained, “In slavery, white ancestry communicated, through skin color, one’s approximation to whiteness at a time when whiteness was equated with being human, and blackness was equated with chattel. So looking white was a saving grace. [It meant] you are more human, civilized, smarter — all the more positive associations people assign to whiteness. So when we look at the larger society and the ability to see a black person as a potential leader, I think it’s absolutely connected to colorism in that historical framework.”…

…The intersection of skin color and class status among black Americans began during slavery. As explained in the textbook Black Slave Owners in Charleston, when black female slaves would give birth to children fathered by their white slave owners, some slave owners would leave property or other forms of inheritance to their children, and some would bestow freedom upon them, too. This created a class of “free persons of color” who were more likely to be fair-skinned and have some measure of economic stability, upward mobility and education…

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