The Politics of Skin Color

My dissertation unpacks the intricacies of race by examining variation in skin tone among African Americans and how this variation is related to both political views and Whites’ levels of prejudice. I apply a mixed-methods approach in my research: analyzing multiple survey datasets, conducting and analyzing 67 in-depth interviews, and designing and conducting multiple experiments. My dissertation research is 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.

Literature across economics, public health, and sociology dating back to the Civil War demonstrates fewer opportunities and more negative outcomes for Black people with dark skin relative to Black people with light skin. Moreover, recent research has demonstrated that racial gaps between White and Black people are primarily driven by skin tone — i.e., differences between White and dark-skinned Black people. My research speaks to this literature by demonstrating that studying skin tone adds greater depth to our understanding of politics. I argue that skin tone variation among Black people is meaningful for both their views of the sociopolitical world and Whites’ views of Black people. Work in this area has revealed conflicting findings, in part due to a range of methodological inconsistencies. Building from existing work, I make a three-fold argument: (1) Given its impact on lived experiences and socioeconomic status, skin tone is associated with Black people’s political preferences; (2) Skin tone is taken up as a distinct social identity by many Black people, held especially strongly and most prone to activation among stigmatized group members — i.e., those with dark skin; and, (3) Dark-skinned Black political candidates are evaluated especially negatively by White voters compared to light-skinned Black candidates. This research advances our knowledge of intersectional identities, intergroup relations, and political behavior, with implications for understanding representation, legislative agendas, and political institutions writ large.