The Cumulative Effects of Colorism: Race, Wealth, and Skin Tone

The Cumulative Effects of Colorism: Race, Wealth, and Skin Tone

Social Forces
Published online: 2023-03-13
DOI: 10.1093/sf/soad038

Alexander Adames, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Sociology
University of Pennslyvania

Researchers have long documented a persistent Black–White gap in wealth. These studies, however, often treat race as a discrete category, eluding its socially constructed nature. As a result, these studies assume that the “effect of race” is consistent across all individuals racialized as Black. Studies that make this assumption potentially obscure heterogeneity in the size of the Black–White wealth gap. Research on skin color stratification suggests that it is possible that the Black–White wealth gap varies by the extent to which a racial subgroup is deemed to fit the broader racial umbrella. In turn, I adopt a more complex operationalization of race that is based on both racial and skin tone appraisals. Drawing on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, I find that the Black–White wealth gap does vary by the Black skin tone subgroup. Generally, the Black–White gap in assets is smallest when focusing on lighter-skin Black people and largest when focusing on darker-skin Black people. These differences are not only the result of initial disadvantage but also cumulative disadvantage in the rate of wealth accumulation. Lastly, the findings suggest that the Black–White wealth gaps grow at a faster rate than the skin tone wealth gaps. I found that differences were robust to adjustments for parental socioeconomic status, childhood background, and interviewer characteristics. I conclude by discussing the theoretical implications for our understanding of the mechanisms undergirding Black–White disparities in wealth attainment.

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