Skin Color, Power, and Politics in America

Mara C. Ostfeld
Nicole D. Yadon
Paperback or Ebook
6.00 x9.00 in.
284 pages
April, 2022

"Skin Color, Power, and Politics in America offers a compelling study examining the linkage between skin color and politics in the United States. Importantly, Mara Ostfeld and Nicole Yadon embark on a careful comparative analysis that examines the nuances and varied effects of skin color on the political attitudes of the three major ethnoracial groups in the United States."
—MARISA ABRAJANO, professor of political science, University of California, San Diego

"The conception of race as a social construct is not novel. What is novel and what makes Skin Color, Power, and Politics in America an essential read is its nuanced and deeper understanding—from measurement to meaning—of the multifaceted ways that people are stratified by skin shade both across and within broadly defined racial groups, and how that sorting links to power and politics."
—DARRICK HAMILTON, university professor and Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, The New School

"Skin Color, Power, and Politics in America is a landmark achievement. It provides new and important insights about how skin tone shapes politics within and across ethnoracial categories. By looking beyond broad ethnoracial categories using novel data, Mara Ostfeld and Nicole Yadon carefully reveal the manifold pathways through which race, gender, color, and class influence political ideologies and ethnoracial politics in the United States. In so doing, Skin Color, Power, and Politics in America is an indispensable resource and a must-read for anyone interested in enriching their understanding of contemporary ethnoracial politics in the United States."
—ELLIS MONK, associate professor of sociology, Harvard University

A person’s skin color affects their life experiences including income, educational attainment, health outcomes, exposure to discrimination, interactions with the criminal justice system and one’s sense of ethnoracial group belonging. But, do these disparate experiences affect the relationship between skin color and political views? In Skin Color, Power, and Politics in America, political scientists Mara Ostfeld and Nicole Yadon explore the relationship between skin color and political views in the U.S. among Latino, Black, and White Americans. They examine how skin color influences an individual’s politics and whether a person’s political views influence how they assess their own skin color.

Ostfeld and Yadon surveyed over 1,300 people about their political views, including party affiliation, their opinions on welfare, and the importance of speaking English in the U.S. The authors created a matrix grounded in their “Roots of Race” framework, which predicts the relationship between skin color and political attitudes for each ethnoracial group based on the blurriness of the group’s boundaries and historical levels of privilege. They draw upon three distinct measures of skin color to conceptualize the relationship between skin color and political views: “Machine-Rated Skin Color,” measured with a light-reflectance meter; “Self-Assessed Skin Color,” using the Yadon-Ostfeld Skin Color Scale; and “Skin Color Discrepancy,” the difference between one’s Machine-Rated and Self-Assessed Skin Color.

Ostfeld and Yadon examine patterns that emerge among these measures, and their relationships with life experiences and political stances. Among Latinos, a group with relatively blurry group boundaries and low levels of historical privilege, the authors find a robust relationship between political views and Self-Assessed Skin Color. Latinos who overestimate the lightness of their skin color are more likely to hold conservative views on current racialized political issues, such as policing. Latinos who overestimate the darkness of their skin color, on the other hand, are more likely to hold liberal political views. As America’s major political parties remain divided on issues of race, this suggests that for Latinos, self-reported skin color is used as a means of aligning oneself with valued political coalitions.

African Americans, another group with low levels of historical privilege but with more clearly defined group boundaries, demonstrated no significant relationship between skin color and political attitudes. Thus, the lived experiences associated with being African American appeared to supersede the differences in life experiences due to skin color.

Whites, a group with more historical privilege and increasingly blurry group boundaries, showed a clear relationship between machine-assessed skin color and attitudes on political issues. Those with darker Machine-Rated Skin Color are more likely to hold conservative views, suggesting that they are responding to the threat of losing their privilege in a multicultural society.

At a time when the U.S. is both more diverse and politically divided, Skin Color, Power, and Politics in America is a timely account of the ways in which skin color and politics are intertwined.

MARA OSTFELD is an assistant research scientist at the Gerald R. Ford  School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

NICOLE YADON is an assistant professor of political science at The Ohio State University.


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