Does Skin Color Affect How You Rate Intelligence of Others?

Study Finds Evidence of Colorism Among White People

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White people rate the intelligence of lighter-skinned blacks and Latinos higher than they do that of their darker-skinned counterparts, all else being equal.

This disturbing finding comes from a study by Villanova sociologist Lance Hannon, published in March 2015 in Social Currents. Hannon conducted this research using pre-existing data collected during the 2012 American National Election Study. Data for this ongoing study is collected via face-to-face interviews with people around the country.

Interviewers ask respondents about their backgrounds, political views and values, perceptions of parties and candidates, and views on public policy, among other things. As part of the study, interviewers are required to rate respondents' skin color on a scale of light to dark, and also, to rate their intelligence on a scale of "very low" to "very high."

Hannon's research focused on cases in which interviewers were white and respondents were black and Latino--223 cases in total. After running ordinal logistic regression analyses on this data, Hannon found conclusively that "African American and Latino respondents with the lightest skin are several times more likely to be seen by whites as intelligent compared with those with the darkest skin" [emphasis added].

By accounting for things like educational background, income, level of political knowledge, and score on a vocabulary test that is part of the study, Hannon was able to conclude that skin tone trumps other factors as an influencer of perceptions of intelligence.

Hannon's findings provide solid evidence of, and thus legitimacy for, the previously unproven racial bias related to skin tone. As Hannon writes in his article, sociologists ourselves are in part to blame for this. Most research on racism has focused on racial categories rather than variations in skin tone.

Further, there is a widespread popular belief that "colorism," a bias toward lightness, is a problem within minority racial populations, but not necessarily among whites. Now, we know indisputably that it is.

Hannon's research backs up previous studies that have found correlations between skin tone and perceptions of intelligence, but that have lacked conclusive evidence of causation. One study published in 2006 found that employers prefer light-skinned black men with bachelor's degrees over dark-skinned black men who have MBAs. A 2010 study conducted in North Carolina found that skin tone of black women seemed to affect length of prison sentence, with sentence length increasing along the light-to-dark scale. While another, published in 2014, found that people remember educated black men as being lighter-skinned than they actually are, presumably because they correlate intelligence with whiteness.

The implications of this study are both immense and rather troubling. Sociologists have long known that racism serves to broker access to rights and resources along racial lines, but now we have evidence that skin tone serves the same function. This kind of bias can negatively affect a person's life from a very young age, by influencing curriculum tracking, encouragement and discouragement, and punishment in schools.

Combined with the study that found that skin tone influences length of prison sentence, this new finding suggests that skin tone likely plays a significant role in funneling kids into the school-to-prison pipeline, as those with darken skin are likely to be more regularly punished, and to receive harsher forms of discipline than those with lighter skin.

The findings of Hannon's study serve as a jarring wake-up call to the importance of understanding the nuances of racism, and remind of the need to educate our populace in ways that serve to eliminate these forms of bias, and their unjust social, economic, and political implications.