LAST week, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, found himself in trouble for once suggesting that Barack Obama had a political edge over other African-American candidates because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Mr. Reid was not expressing sadness but a gleeful opportunism that Americans were still judging one another by the color of their skin, rather than — as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy we commemorated on Monday, dreamed — by the content of their character.
The Senate leader’s choice of words was flawed, but positing that black candidates who look “less black” have a leg up is hardly more controversial than saying wealthy people have an advantage in elections. Dozens of research studies have shown that skin tone and other racial features play powerful roles in who gets ahead and who does not. These factors regularly determine who gets hired, who gets convicted and who gets elected.
Consider: Lighter-skinned Latinos in the United States make $5,000 more on average than darker-skinned Latinos. The education test-score gap between light-skinned and dark-skinned African-Americans is nearly as large as the gap between whites and blacks.
The Harvard neuroscientist Allen Counter has found that in Arizona, California and Texas, hundreds of Mexican-American women have suffered mercury poisoning as a result of the use of skin-whitening creams. In India, where I was born, a best-selling line of women’s cosmetics called Fair and Lovely has recently been supplemented by a product aimed at men called Fair and Handsome.
This isn’t racism, per se: it’s colorism, an unconscious prejudice that isn’t focused on a single group like blacks so much as on blackness itself. Our brains, shaped by culture and history, create intricate caste hierarchies that privilege those who are physically and culturally whiter and punish those who are darker.
Colorism is an intraracial problem as well as an interracial problem. Racial minorities who are alert to white-black or white-brown issues often remain silent about a colorism that asks “how black” or “how brown” someone is within their own communities.
If colorism lives underground, its effects are very real. Darker-skinned African-American defendants are more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty as lighter-skinned African-American defendants for crimes of equivalent seriousness involving white victims. This was proven in rigorous, peer-reviewed research into hundreds of capital punishment-worthy cases by the Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt.
Take, for instance, two of Dr. Eberhadt’s murder cases, in Philadelphia, involving black defendants — one light-skinned, the other dark. The lighter-skinned defendant, Arthur Hawthorne, ransacked a drug store for money and narcotics. The pharmacist had complied with every demand, yet Mr. Hawthorne shot him when he was lying face down. Mr. Hawthorne was independently identified as the killer by multiple witnesses, a family member and an accomplice.
The darker-skinned defendant, Ernest Porter, pleaded not guilty to the murder of a beautician, a crime that he was linked to only through a circuitous chain of evidence. A central witness later said that prosecutors forced him to finger Mr. Porter even though he was sure that he was the wrong man. Two people who provided an alibi for Mr. Porter were mysteriously never called to testify. During his trial, Mr. Porter revealed that the police had even gotten his name wrong — his real name was Theodore Wilson — but the court stuck to the wrong name in the interest of convenience.
Both men were convicted. But the lighter-skinned Mr. Hawthorne was given a life sentence, while the dark-skinned Mr. Porter has spent more than a quarter-century on Pennsylvania’s death row.
Colorism also influenced the 2008 presidential race. In an experiment that fall, Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory, and other researchers shot different versions of a political advertisement in support of Mr. Obama. One version showed a light-skinned black family. Another version had the same script, but used a darker-skinned black family. Voters, at an unconscious level, were less inclined to support Mr. Obama after watching the ad featuring the darker-skinned family than were those who watched the ad with the lighter-skinned family.
Political operatives are certainly aware of this dynamic. During the campaign, a conservative group created attack ads linking Mr. Obama with Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced former mayor of Detroit, which darkened Mr. Kilpatrick’s skin to have a more persuasive effect. Though there can be little doubt that as a candidate Mr. Obama faced voters’ conscious and unconscious prejudices, it is simultaneously true that unconscious colorism subtly advantaged him over darker-skinned politicians.
In highlighting how Mr. Obama benefited from his links to whiteness, Harry Reid punctured the myth that Mr. Obama’s election signaled the completion of the Rev. King’s dream. Americans may like to believe that we are now color-blind, that we can consciously choose not to use race when making judgments about other people. It remains a worthy aspiration. But this belief rests on a profound misunderstanding about how our minds work and perversely limits our ability to discuss prejudice honestly.