There has been a great deal of discussion and research centered around whether skin tone in the African-American community plays a role in a person’s success in life and their treatment of society. And now, it seems that the scope has been expanded to the judicial system. A recent study conducted at Villanova University found that skin tone had a direct effect on the length of jail sentences given to black women in the North Carolina prison system, as well as the time that they served.
The research discovered that black women who were perceived to have a light skin tone were sentenced to considerably more lenient sentences, roughly 12 percent less time in prison than those with a dark skin tone. Light skinned black women also served roughly 11 percent less time in prison than their dark skin counterparts. The influence of skin tone in a person’s life has often been examined and debated, but this new study sheds light on the fact that colorism, or racial preference based on skin tone, may be alive and well in our judicial system, and it begs the question: is justice really blind in the United States?
“Justice is not blind, in fact, it’s more accurate to describe justice as nearsighted,” said Lance Hannon, a sociology professor at Villanova University who co-authored the study with Sociology Professor Robert Defina and former graduate student Jill Viglione. “Justice is too often decided by one’s ability to sympathize with a defendant or crime victim. Sympathy, in turn, is often the product of larger social forces like segregation and media depictions of certain groups. Among blacks, characteristics associated with whiteness appear to have a significant impact on important life outcomes, such as the amount of time one spends in jail. The current study adds to a growing body of colorism research that underscores the complexity of racism in our society.”
The research team looked at the maximum possible servable term and the actual time that more than 12,000 black women prison convicts in North Carolina served from 1995 through mid-2009 using data from the North Carolina Department of Corrections. The information included inmate hair color, eye color, height, weight, body build and skin tone. And while there was another study conducted in 2006 by the Mississippi Urban Research Center that found a correlation between dark skin hue in men and disadvantages in crime and punishment, the Villanova study is the first to analyze the effect that skin tone has on the treatment and sentencing of black women in the criminal justice system.
Hannon said the group discovered information on women inmates’ skin hue while conducting another study on incarceration’s impact on children using the same data. After reading other work on how colorism affects employment outcomes, and hearing Senator Harry Reid speak about President Obama’s skin tone in January 2010, the group was motivated to pursue the research further. Hannon says that while the research findings were alarming, what struck them most was the stark difference in preferential treatment given to thin light-skinned black females in the prison system.
“We were surprised to see that black women who were assessed as ‘thin’ received a lesser sentence, holding constant the type of crime and several other variables,” he said. “This finding suggests that larger black women may pay a penalty for violating societal norms of femininity. Or, alternatively stated, thin black women seem to benefit from societal norms relative to those who are not deemed thin. At this point, we are not sure if this finding generalizes to women of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.”
This study is not the first to measure the significance of lighter skin in determining life outcomes of African-Americans. In 2006, the University of Georgia found that employers preferred to hire light-skinned men over their darker-skinned counterparts.
And in 2005, A Girl Like Me, an award-winning documentary by then 18-year-old Kiri Davis, examined society’s beauty standards and perceptions based on differences on skin tone. One teen in the film, Glenda, said that a light-skinned person is considered prettier, while another girl, Jennifer, tells Davis that she feels ugly because she is dark-skinned.
Images in the media don’t help the situation either. In 2008, a light-skinned controversy even hit Beyoncé Knowles, when a L’Oreal Paris Feria hair color ad featuring an allegedly lightened version of the star sparked discussions about the standards of beauty in the black community.
An April 2011 research study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that unconscious racial biases are present even when deciding whom we will trust, and when making important decisions about things like money.
“We strive as a culture to not let race bias be a significant factor in the way we choose to do things and on an individual level, we all assume that our beliefs reflect our actions, but we have to be aware of the fact that this won’t always be the case,” says Elizabeth Phelps, a psychologist at New York University co-author of the study told ABC News in April.
Claudia Martin agrees with the assertion that skin tone relates to the treatment of black people in society. Martin, who is African-American, says that although she believes that colorism exists across all ethnicities, she thinks that studies like the one Villanova conducted are necessary to help create a dialogue and get the black community to reach a better understanding of this issue.
“It is unfortunate and disturbing to know that two women can commit the same crime but because one is either prettier or thinner or has lighter skin, she will be given and serve less time,” she said. “The way society perceives people, and especially justice system outcomes, should not be determined by a person’s race, let alone their skin complexion. Even though I have seen that some lighter skin women are treated differently, I don’t want to generalize, and above all, I believe the way one is treated is determined by the mentality of the person they are interacting with. And that’s why I think it’s important to have discussions like these so that we can move past these issues as a community.”
Posted on the North Carolina Department of Correction’s website is the phrase: “the North Carolina Department of Correction does not discriminate of the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age or disability.” But nowhere does it mention skin tone. Does this study mean that colorism is something that officials in criminal justice systems across the nation should start to become aware of? Should they be concerned about this issue? Although a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Corrections declined to comment on the story, he did send this message via email.
“Our agency’s job is to carry out the orders of the courts, ensuring that offenders serve the sentences that the courts determine,” said Keith Acree, Chief Public Information Officer for the North Carolina Department of Corrections. “As such, I don’t think it would be appropriate for us to comment on this study.”
Hannon, however, says that the North Carolina Department of Corrections should be commended for releasing this sort of data, and that more states need to take note.
“I would like to point out that had North Carolina not made these data publicly available and easily accessible, we would not have been able to investigate the issue,” he said. “It would be great if other states would follow their lead in providing important criminal justice data to the public.”
Overall, Hannon and his colleagues say that the response to their research has been positive and that the study’s results is simply one piece of a larger puzzle that requires public attention.
“When put together, this puzzle forms a disturbing picture of continued institutional and individual racism,” he said. “It is no longer sufficient to understand racial discrimination based solely on terms of the relative advantages of whites compared to non-whites. In my opinion, we have recently made a lot progress in terms of reducing the amount of discrimination in the criminal system, but we still have a ways to go.”