Skin Shade Stratification and the Psychological Cost of Unemployment: Is there a Gradient for Black Females?


The purpose of this paper is to formally evaluate whether the deleterious impact of unemployment on mental health increases as skin shade darkens for black women in the U.S. Using data drawn from the National Survey of American Life, we find strong evidence of a gradient on depression between skin shade and unemployment for black women. These findings are consistent with the premises of the emerging field of stratification economics. Moreover, the findings are robust to various definitions of skin shade. Unemployed black women with darker complexions are significantly more likely to suffer their first onset of depression than unemployed black females with lighter skin shade. While in some cases, lighter skinned black women appeared not to suffer adverse effects of unemployment compared to their employed counterparts, persons with dark complexions did not enjoy the same degree of protection from poor mental health.

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  1. 1.

    See Darity (2005) for a detailed early discussion of stratification economics.

  2. 2.

    For an overview of colorism and how it operates in a range of spheres including education, health, the labor market, and pop culture see Pearce-Doughlin et al. (2013). There is extensive evidence of colorism operating across a wide range of societies (Hunter 2005) including Brazil (Rangel 2007, Francis and Tannuri-Pianto 2013) and India (Hunter 2008).

  3. 3.

    Racial phenotype is the observable physical characteristics (e.g., hair texture, skin tone, facial features, cheek bone structure, height) resulting from genetics and environment that are often used to differentiate individuals when identifying a racial group. Thus, racial phenotype refers to physical features generally assumed to be typical among members of a racial/ethnic group. Maddox (2004) coined the term Afrocentric phenotype bias to explain favoritism based on differentiation in physical characteristics among African Americans. He asserts that negative attitudes and perceptions are associated with more Afrocentric features (e.g., darker skin, broader nose, fuller lips).

  4. 4.

    For instance, darker skinned males are found to work in lower status occupations (Hill, 2000) and earn lower wages (Goldsmith et al. 2007; Keith and Herring 1991) than their lighter skinned counterparts. In addition there is evidence that blacks with darker skin shade are subject to higher conviction rates and more severe sentences for comparable crimes (Gyimah-Brempong and Price, 2006; Mocan and Tekin, 2010; Eberhardt, et al. 2004) than persons with lighter skin tone, and they are considered less trustworthy in experimental settings (Wilson and Eckel, 2007).

  5. 5.

    28% of non-Hispanic black women headed a household in 2008 (Women’s Health 2010), three times the rate for white women. Weiss and Gardner (2010) report that adult black women (68 %) are much more likely than white (43 %) and Hispanic (47 %) women to be unmarried. Schneider (2011) reports that 63 % of black women and 80 % of white women had married by the age of 30 in 1980. However, for black women this rate fell to 38 % by 2000 and it declined to 66 % for white women; and for each group has remained relatively stable thereafter.

  6. 6.

    Borrell et al. (2006), using data from the Longitudinal Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study (CARDIA) on African American women, offer evidence that the probability of securing full time employment is less for women with darker skin shade for the entire period spanning from 1985 to 2000, but that the gap, which starts out statistically significant, falls in magnitude over time and no significant difference can be detected in 2000.

  7. 7.

    They contend that African American women are typically, and inaccurately, depicted as resilient (the “strong black woman” trope) to these emotional challenges in popular literature and the media. Moreover, they cite evidence of a connection between skin shade and mental health for black women in the U.S.

  8. 8.

    Brown and Keith (2003) show that darker complexioned black women suffer from higher levels of psychological distress than lighter skinned African American women with similar socio-demographic characteristics using data from the National Comorbidity Study.

  9. 9.

    For a meta-analysis review of cross sectional studies and longitudinal examinations of the link between various forms of emotional health and unemployment see (Paul and Moser 2009) and (McKee-Ryan et al. 2005) respectively. Ruhm (2000) using national and state-level data offers evidence that mortality rates fall as the unemployment rate rises. He interprets this as the outcome of people responding to the lower opportunity cost of time associated with poor job market conditions leading to greater self-investment in activities that promote better health. Following his logic joblessness should not foster poorer mental health. However, further analysis of his proposition using aggregate and state level data by Miller et al. (2009, 127) reveals that it is “unlikely that changes in individuals’ own labor force status, work, or health behaviors are the key determinants of aggregate mortality changes across the business cycle.” The primary cause of a pro-cyclical pattern in mortality rates is due to a positive link between motor vehicle accidents and economic activity among working age individuals.

  10. 10.

    Krieger (2000) reports that many epidemiological studies find that self-reported health status is lower for black men and women with darker skin shade.

  11. 11.

    Thompson and Keith (2001) provide evidence that black women with darker skin shade report lower levels of self-esteem than black females with lighter complexion.

  12. 12.

    Collapsing the skin shade categories from five to three offers us greater statistical power to generate more precise estimates.

  13. 13.

    However, individuals who report being out of work, but who later in the survey indicate that they are willing to take a job if one is offered, are included as unemployed members of the labor force.

  14. 14.

    Each of the more than 300 professional interviewers employed by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan who participated in the data collection process received seven days of study-specific training and successfully completed two practice interviews before beginning their assignment.

  15. 15.

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) uses 16 spheres to gauge mental health while the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) evaluates mental well-being in ten areas. Using either of these criteria frameworks, a clinical like diagnosis on a zero to one scale is made indicating whether or not the person suffers from the condition.

  16. 16.

    There is evidence of good concordance (Kessler et al. 2005) between this clinical like diagnosis and actual diagnosis of the same respondents made by experienced clinical psychologists using a structured clinical interview.

  17. 17.

    Numerous studies report that social support buffers the psychological distress associated with unemployment; see for instance Atkinson et al. (1986).

  18. 18.

    While the data allows us to identify spells of unemployment within the last 6 months, we are not able to identify individuals’ prior bouts of unemployment. If prior bouts of unemployment led to depression, these individuals are classified as vulnerable and therefore omitted from our analysis. However, among the resilient individuals, prior bouts of unemployment may influence the likelihood of recent bouts of unemployment lead to depression. This would alter the interpretation of our finding if the following three conditions hold: (1) skin tone is correlated with previous bouts of unemployment; (2) previous bouts of unemployment are correlated with current bouts of unemployment; and (3) these previous bouts of unemployment (that did not result in onset of depression) contribute to a current onset of depression. If this is the case, then we would interpret β4 and β5 in equation (2) as the influence of multiple bouts of unemployment on depression (and not solely due to skin shade).

  19. 19.

    The pattern of findings reported in Table 3 are robust to the inclusion of state fixed-effects, county unemployment rate, obesity, and religiosity at the time of the survey.

  20. 20.

    We also examined if blacks with darker skin shade are more inclined to worry in general. We find no evidence this is the case when we estimated the model using the resilient sample and then we stratified the sample by labor force status.


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The authors acknowledge the comments and suggestions provided by Patrick Mason, Trevon Logan, the participants at the Second Wave Conference at The Ohio State University, and anonymous reviewers. Diette and Goldsmith are grateful for financial support provided by the Lenfest Summer Fellowships at Washington and Lee University.

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Correspondence to Timothy M. Diette.



Table 5 Definition of variables used in the econometric analysis and associated summary statistics
Table 6 Summary statistics
Table 7 Marginal effects of depression

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Diette, T.M., Goldsmith, A.H., Hamilton, D. et al. Skin Shade Stratification and the Psychological Cost of Unemployment: Is there a Gradient for Black Females?. Rev Black Polit Econ 42, 155–177 (2015).

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  • Stratification economics
  • Skin tone
  • Phenotype
  • Unemployment
  • Mental health
  • Depression

JEL Classification

  • Z13
  • I1
  • J64
  • J15