More Than Just Race: Skin Tone and the Criminal Justice System

May 6, 2020
Ellis Monk

For many decades now social scientists have shown how, in so many ways, one's ethnoracial background is associated with a whole host of important outcomes from educational attainment to labor market outcomes to health.  Many studies also provide compelling evidence of ethnoracial disparities in the criminal justice system – the probability of being arrested, incarcerated, and even the length of criminal sentences. 

The role of discrimination in producing these disparities between Blacks and whites, however, remains a point of contention in the literature.  As many researchers point out, for instance, there are stark within-race disparities with respect to contact with and treatment by the criminal justice system associated with educational attainment and earnings.  Consequently, as compelling as evidence of potential bias may be, researchers all appreciate the unobserved heterogeneity that exists in traditional comparisons of Blacks and whites in the criminal justice system.

Running in parallel to the voluminous literature on ethnoracial inequality, however, is a burgeoning literature on colorism, which provides intriguing evidence that inequalities in educational attainment, labor market outcomes, health, and more are not simply a matter of one’s ethnoracial background, but also the lightness or darkness of their skin.  Across nearly every outcome, studies show substantial and significant disparities among African Americans, where darker-skinned African Americans experience stark disadvantages. 

Still, research on skin tone stratification in the criminal justice system using nationally-representative data is quite rare.  “The Color of Punishment,” published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, uses nationally-representative data to examine the relationship between skin tone, arrest, and incarceration among African American adults.  By using skin tone to examine within-race differences in experiences with policing and punishment, the study effectively holds categorical race constant and controls variation in socioeconomic status (e.g. education, employment, and earnings), which have been shown to be important factors in explaining contact with and treatment by the criminal justice system. 

Even after adjusting for all of these factors, however, the study demonstrates strong associations between skin tone, arrest, and incarceration among African Americans.  In fact, the magnitude of the intraracial disparities in arrest between the lightest and darkest-skinned African Americans rival what some studies find between Blacks and whites as a whole.  While no single study can claim to provide definitive evidence of bias and discrimination, “The Color of Punishment” does raise important questions about the potential roles of bias and discrimination as mechanisms responsible for ethnoracial disparities in the criminal justice system.  Using nationally-representative data this study shows that darker-skinned African Americans face significant disadvantages that are not totally explained away by the most common explanatory factors in the prevailing literature such as educational attainment, earnings, and employment status.