The Politics of Skin Color

Race is an undeniable force in politics. My dissertation examines heterogeneity centered on one important yet understudied facet of race: skin tone. Given the historical importance of skin tone for African Americans and its significance for socioeconomic outcomes, health, criminal justice, and more, one might expect skin tone to be meaningful for politics in various ways. Drawing evidence from multiple national surveys, in-depth interviews, and an original survey experiment, I find that the skin tone of Black people is politically meaningful in three broad ways.

First, I demonstrate a number of domains in which African Americans’ skin color is associated with their social and political views. This is evident in both the qualitative interview and mass survey data, and with both traditional race-based items as well as with a set of novel items that focus on experiences and policies based centrally on skin color. Darker-skinned Black people are more likely to recognize color-based disparities in society and consistently support more liberal policy positions than those with lighter skin, even after accounting for standard demographic indicators.

Second, I develop a set of measures to examine the prospect that skin tone identity serves as a social identity distinct from (though undeniably related to) race. Using these measures across multiple surveys, I find that skin tone is a meaningful identity to a sizable portion of the racial group. As with other group-based identities, skin color is more important to more stigmatized group members—i.e., those with darker skin.

Third, I use a survey experiment to test whether skin tone is an identity that can be activated in socially and politically consequential ways. I further explore how the combination of skin color and skin color identity is associated with political views, finding that identification is especially potent for influencing the views of dark-skinned high identifiers. Together, this evidence signals the importance of examining race in not only categorical but also continuous fashions to more fully understand the political contours of the American racial landscape.

This project has important implications for our understanding of two domains of political science: (1) political behavior—e.g., with respect to political preferences, racial stereotypes, political coalitions, and media depictions of racial groups; and, (2) political institutions as it relates to thinking about political representation, policy-making, and legislative agendas. This research has been supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, a Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS) grant, as well as several other fellowships, grants, and awards. One portion of this project also received the 2020 MPSA Lucius Barker Award for best paper in race and ethnic politics.