But is that correct? There are two common reasons colorism by whites gets overlooked. First, social science seems to bolster anecdotal evidence that white people see variation in skin tone in a narrower range than African Americans do. Second, given that one’s racial category has always been of such great importance in the United States — think of the infamous “one-drop rule” — any impact of skin-tone differences within racial categories is assumed to be minuscule in comparison. While both of these rationales may seem to make sense on the surface, on close inspection neither provides justification for ignoring clear, real-life consequences of white colorism.
Regarding the first point: Our recent analysis of data from the National Opinion Research Center’s long-running General Social Survey confirms that African Americans and whites judge skin tone quite differently. In particular, white observers perceive the skin tones of black individuals as much darker than black observers do. This is consistent with other data showing that, to use one example, roughly 42 percent of whites describe Tiger Woods as having “dark” or “very dark” skin, while only about 14 percent of African Americans say the same. But such results do not mean that white people are “tone-blind.” In fact, there is solid evidence that white people do indeed see significant variation in African American skin tones. It is just that this variation is concentrated at the darker end of the scale.
What, then, about the second rationalization? Is white colorism irrelevant in comparison to pervasive bias against all black people in the United States? While it is true that all African Americans face significant discrimination, all African Americans do not face the same level or type of discrimination. Indeed, results from rigorous social science analyses reveal a powerful effect of skin tone that is independent of the powerful effect of race.