Dark-skinned blacks in the United States have lower socioeconomic status, more punitive relationships with the criminal justice system, diminished prestige, and less likelihood of holding elective office compared with their lighter counterparts. This phenomenon of "colorism" both occurs within the African American community and is expressed by outsiders, and most blacks are aware of it. Nevertheless, blacks' perceptions of discrimination, belief that their fates are linked, or attachment to their race almost never vary by skin color. We identify this disparity between treatment and political attitudes as "the skin color paradox," and use it as a window into the politics of race in the United States over the past half-century.

Using national surveys, we explain the skin color paradox as follows: Blacks' commitment to racial identity overrides the potential for skin color discrimination to have political significance. That is, because most blacks see the fight against racial hierarchy as requiring their primary allegiance, they do not see or do not choose to express concern about the internal hierarchy of skin tone. Thus dark-skinned blacks' widespread experience of harm has no political outlet – which generates the skin color paradox.

The article concludes by asking how much concern the skin color paradox really warrants. Without fully resolving that question, we note that policies designed to solve the problem of racial hierarchy are not helpful to and may even make worse the problem of skin color hierarchy within the black population.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 643-670
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.