Skin-Tone Effects among African Americans:Perceptions and Reality
There are considerable racial disparities ineconomic outcomes and health, as well as evi-dence that these effects of race differ by skintone, with darker skin tone being associatedwith inferior economic outcomes and higherblood pressure. Using data from three sources, Iﬁnd consistent evidence that African Americanswith lighter skin tone have higher educationalattainment than those with darker skin tone,with some, but limited, evidence that the racialdifference in wages is attenuated by lighter skintone. I explore explanations for these ﬁndings,considering the inﬂuence of possible measure-ment error, perceived attractiveness, access tointegrated schools or work groups, perceiveddiscrimination, and genetic differences. Theperception that there is differential treatment onthe basis of skin tone is more pronounced thanthe observed disparities.
I. Datasets and Background Statistics
I examine data from the National Survey of Black Americans (NSBA), 1979–1980; theMulti-City Study of Urban Inequality (MCSUI),1992–1994; and the 1995 Detroit Area Study(DAS).
In each dataset, interviewers reportedrespondents’ skin tone in ﬁve or three catego-ries. Both the NSBA and MCSUI provide in-formation on education, childhood background,and labor market characteristics. The DAS doesnot include information on earnings but in-cludes a series of questions about perceptions of treatment not available in other datasets. In ad-dition, respondents to the DAS self-reportedtheir skin tone, uniquely allowing corroborationwith interviewer reports.Table 1 provides average values of education,hourly wage, and employment status using theNSBA and the MCSUI. Lighter skin tone isclearly associated with higher employment ratesfor women and higher educational attainmentfor both women and men. The employment ratefor women with very dark skin tone in theNSBA is strikingly lower than for women withlighter skin tone.In contrast, evidence that skin tone affectswages is limited. For both sexes, in both data-sets, those in the light category have the highestaverage hourly wage, but this value is signiﬁ-cantly different from those with darker skinonly for men in the NSBA. Furthermore, thepattern for women based on the MCSUI doesnot show an increasing wage from darker tolighter skin tone, but instead shows that womenin the medium-skin-tone category have the low-est average wage.
II. Education and Wage Regressions
To control for factors other than skin tonewhich may affect education and wages, I esti-mate education and wage regressions by gender,using the NSBA and MCSUI. The NSBA iscomprised of black respondents only, so black/ white comparisons cannot be made. I include inthe MCSUI analyses only those respondentswho were non-Hispanic black, or white, thusremoving from the sample those reported as anyother category (mainly Hispanic and Asian).Both datasets have information on parents’ edu-cation as well as other characteristics thatinﬂuence educational attainment, such as residen-tial characteristics when growing up. All equa-tions control for cohorts in 10-year intervals.ThosereportedlivingmainlyoutsideoftheUnitedStates are excluded from the years-of-educationanalyses, as are those who are under the age of 18,over the age of 65, or missing information onvariables included in the equations.
* Harvard Law School, 1545 Massachusetts Avenue,Cambridge, MA 02138 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Arthur H. Goldsmith et al. (2005) have used both theNSBA and the MCSUI to examine the effect of skin tone onwages among males.