The colour line and the colour scale in the twentieth century

The colour line and the colour scale in the twentieth century

Ethnic and Racial Studies
Volume 35, Issue 7, 2012
pages 1109-1131
DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2011.605902

Michael Banton, Emeritus Professor of Sociology
University of Bristol

Some more recent evidence supports Du Bois’ prediction that the twentieth century would prove the century of the colour line. It indicates that men have always and everywhere shown a preference for fair complexioned women as sexual partners, whereas males seeking a mate are rarely disadvantaged by a dark complexion. In the employment market in the USA, a dark complexion is a significant disadvantage for both males and females. Though there is no properly comparable evidence from other countries, there appears to be a widespread tendency for any negative valuation of darker skin colour to be incorporated into a scale of socio-economic status. In some situations a colour scale is replacing the colour line.

Du Bois’ reference to differences of colour has been largely superseded in English-speaking countries by references to differences of race. From a policy standpoint, the switch from colour to race has had both positive and negative consequences. From a sociological standpoint, it has made it more difficult to disaggregate the dimensions of social difference and to dispel the confusions engendered by ideas of racial difference.


In the first year of the century, and then again three years later, W. E. B. Du Bois (2005:x, 10) wrote that ‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line  the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and in the islands of the sea’. His prediction was only partially borne out, for the main problems of the twentieth century were the militarism that stimulated the slaughter of World War I, the dictatorships that led to World War II, the armaments race of the Cold War, the decolonization process, and the problems that the international political system could not grasp, particularly those of population growth and climate change. Colour-consciousness contributed to the fourth of these.

The expression, ‘a colour line’, was a metaphor drawing on Du Bois’ experiences in North America that was very effective for the designation of a political problem. Yet if a name chosen to designate a political problem conveys a thesis about the source, or cause, of the thing in question, it also poses an intellectual problem. In this case the expression ‘colour line’ grasped only one facet of the relations between humans of different colour…

…In the early years of the century there appeared to be a scientific justification for racial classification, even if there was no agreement upon quite which classification to employ, or for what purpose. That is no longer the case, and the educated public is now aware that there is no close correspondence between the social categories identified as races and the classes that assemble genetic similarities and dissimilarities. For example, it has been known for a long time that the social classification of persons in the USA as black or white is biologically misleading. A statistical analysis using historical census data and historical data on immigration and birth rates concluded in 1958 that twenty-one per cent of the white population had black ancestors, and that the majority of the persons with some African ancestry were classified as white (Stuckert 1958). In the aftermath of World War II, and in the international revulsion from the use made of racial doctrines by Nazi Germany, the idiom of race was used, in both international and national laws, to prohibit discrimination on grounds of race, colour, descent, and national or ethnic origin. Racial classifications have since been used in population censuses, in programmes for the promotion of  equality, and, at times, but in a different way, in medical research. The use of the word race in the law will continue, as it may in other parts of the everyday world of practical affairs…

…Though variations in skin colour can be measured objectively by use of a photospectrometer, these measures provide only approximate indications of a person’s genotype. Better indications can be taken from work in molecular anthropology. Such research has found that six genetic loci are involved in the determination of a person’s skin colour, so it is possible for a person to have a fifteen-twenty per cent African component in his or her genotype without possessing any of the alleles that code for dark skin (Sweet 2004). This makes it easier, in a country like the USA, for a person with African ancestry to ‘pass for white’. For the same genetic reasons, African admixture amongst white Americans can increase without any significant change in skin tone. Conversely, amongst African-Americans, an amount of African admixture is directly correlated with darker skin since no selective pressure is applied; as a result, African-Americans may have a very wide range of African admixture (>0-100%), whereas European-Americans have a lower range (2-20%). As there is a small overlap, it is possible that a man who identifies himself as white may have more African admixture than a man who identifies himself as black…

…This essay reviews the political problems of the twentieth century, at the same time calling attention to the intellectual problem posed by the multidimensionality of difference. Why is it that, in given circumstances, certain dimensions acquire a particular significance? This is the explanandum that has to be approached step by step. Starting from Du Bois’ prediction, it is argued here, firstly, that use of the word colour concentrates attention upon what serves as a visible sign of a social difference; secondly, that sociologists have to account for how it comes to be used as such a sign; and thirdly, that when sociologists use race as if it were a synonym for colour (as English-speaking sociologists often do) they make it more difficult to identify what has to be explained. As the essay’s title suggests, it also contends that the notion of a colour scale helps consideration of the function of colour as a social sign…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , ,