Tuesday, January 19, 2010

shades of prejudice

NYTimes | 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.
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Shankar Vedantam, a Nieman fellow at Harvard University and a reporter for The Washington Post, is the author of the book “The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives.”