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Jennifer Hochschild When Do People Not Protest Unfairness? The Case of Skin Color Discrimination It was a color thing and a class thing. And for generations of black people, color and class have been inexorably tied together. —Lawrence Graham (2000) Well-to-do, fair-skinned kids in the neighborhood weren’t allowed to play with him and they regularly taunted him about his color, Jones says. . . . “That’s been a dominant force in my life,”he says. “Having lived through those expe­ riences gave me the desire to fight for the disadvantaged.” —Robinson-English (2005) That’s bullshit research. —Comment at a conference to coauthor of paper on skin color and political attitudes, 2004 ONE WAY TO UNDERSTAND THE CONDITIONS UNDER WHICH PEOPLE develop and act on a sense of unfairness is to clarify the conditions in which they do not do so." The conditions may not be mirror images, of course—there may be an intermediate zone of confusion, or the two social research Vol 73 : No 2 : Summer 2006 473 situations may not be exactly symmetrical—but they are surely related. In this article I consider why African Americans tend not to protest or perhaps even to recognize discriminatory treatment by skin color, even or especially when they are deeply sensitive to discrimination by race. I will do so, in part, by briefly considering a parallel issue: why poor Americans tend not to protest economic inequalities, even when they recognize them to be excessive or even unfair.1 Part ofwhat makes this subject so fascinating is that it is not clear that, from a normative or political standpoint, blacks should protest skin color discrimination or poor whites should protest unfair economic inequalities. From their own vantage points, members of these groups may gain more by not protesting than they would gain by protesting. I find that conclusion hard to take, but I consider it after laying out the initial empirical propositions. The article concludes with an argument about why African Americans, and other Americans, should neverthe­ less attend more than they do to skin tone differentiation. "IT’S A COLOR THING AND A CLASS THING” Colorism The analysis starts from the presumably uncontroversial presumption that race matters. More precisely, African Americans can be expected to resemble each other in perceptions of discrimination and under­ standings of unfairness more than they will resemble members of any other group.2Less well known, however, is that how people behave and are treated is affected not only by the nominal category of race, but also by the ordinal category o f multiple shades of skin tone. This is the phenomenon of “colorism”—“the tendency to perceive or behave toward members of a racial category based on the lightness or dark­ ness of their skin tone” (Maddox and Gray, 2002: 250). As with racism, a pejorative connotation is built into the word. Also like racism, it can be defined either unidirectionally (only those with power and status— that is, light-skinned people—can exhibit colorism) or multidirectionally (people of one skin shade can denigrate or subordinate people of another, in any possible direction).3 Colorism can occur within one’s 474 social research own community, or across racial and ethnic groups. In theory, it can hold for Anglos, Asians, or any other “racial”group. Skin Color Hierarchy in History Within communities of color, hierarchy based on skin tone is long­ standing and widely, if often silently, acknowledged. Lawrence Graham, for example, fills in the epigram above by writing, Iknew some [otherblack people] who not only had complex­ ions ten shades lighter than that brown paper bag, and hair as straight as any ruler, but also had multiple generations of “good looks,” wealth, and accomplishment. . . . It was a color thing and a class thing. And for generations of black people, color and class have been inexorably tied together (Graham, 2000). Our more systematic historical research demonstrates that the importance of skin color on life chances dates back at least to the nine­ teenth century.4 Vesla Weaver’s analyses show that lighter-skinned black soldiers in the Union Army of the Civil War were, compared with darker-skinned soldiers, more likely to be skilled...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 473-498
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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