This study contributes to the research literature on colorism–discrimination based on skin tone—by examining whether skin darkness affects the likelihood that African Americans will experience school suspension. Using data from The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, logistic regression analyses indicated that darker skin tone significantly increased the odds of suspension for African American adolescents. Closer inspection of the data revealed that this overall result was disproportionately driven by the experiences of African American females. The odds of suspension were about 3 times greater for young African American women with the darkest skin tone compared to those with the lightest skin. This finding was robust to the inclusion of controls for parental SES, delinquent behavior, academic performance, and several other variables. Furthermore, this finding was replicated using similar measures in a different sample of African Americans from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The results suggest that discrimination in school discipline goes beyond broad categories of race to include additional distinctions in skin tone.
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However, it is worth noting that skin lightness can also be a disadvantage in certain contexts, particularly as it relates to ethnic identity and integration into ethnic groups (Hunter 2007).
Of course, as Jones (2010) has eloquently argued, an increasing recognition of the legal basis for colorism claims does not mean that such cases have a good chance of winning. As she (2010) puts it: “…it is one thing to be able to assert a right to relief. It is another to convince a fact-finder to grant that relief” (p. 661).
The following description comes from the NLSY97 documentation.
Respondents are asked the following ten questions: (1) Have you ever run away, that is, left home and stayed away at least overnight without your parent's prior knowledge or permission; (2) Have you ever carried a hand gun? When we say hand gun, we mean any fire arm other than a rifle or shotgun; (3) Have you ever belonged to a gang?; (4) Have you ever purposely damaged or destroyed property that did not belong to you?; (5) Have you ever stolen something from a store or something that did not belong to you worth less than 50 dollars?; (6) Have you ever stolen something from a store, person, or house, or something that did not belong to you worth 50 dollars or more including stealing a car?; (7) Have you ever committed other property crimes such as fencing, receiving, possessing, or selling stolen property, or cheated someone by selling them something that was worthless or worth much less than what you said it was?; (8) Have you ever attacked someone with the idea of seriously hurting them or have a situation end up in a serious fight or assault of some kind?; (9) Have you ever sold or helped sell marijuana (pot, grass), hashish (hash), or other hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, or LSD?; and (10) Have you ever been arrested by the police or taken into custody for an illegal or a delinquent offense (do not include arrests for minor traffic violations)? A positive response to a question is coded as “1” and a negative “0”.
If either father’s or mother’s education is missing, the missing parent is assigned the non-missing parent’s education level. If one or two of the elements of SES (parental education and household income) are missing, the calculation of SES is based on the available data. If both are missing, data are deleted casewise.
Models were estimated both with and without the general sampling weights. The basic conclusions regarding the impact of skin tone on the likelihood of suspension are unaffected. The estimates discussed in the text do not use the weights.
Following standard procedures, we centered both the skin darkness and interviewer race variables by subtracting the mean from each before interacting them, and used the centered levels of the variables in the regression (Aiken and West 1991).
We tried two additional specifications in which we included only the level of the interviewer’s race indicator without the interaction. In the first, we used only the African American/non-African American interviewer race indicator in the baseline multivariate model. We found that the skin darkness odds ratios were significant and greater than one. The odds ratio for the indicator variable was insignificant. We also created indicator variables (0/1) for each of the six interviewer race categories and then estimated the baseline model including all the interviewer race indicators apart from white, which served as the excluded category. None of the indicator variables were significant.
We estimate the new models with specifications indicating the complex survey structure of the Add Health data following the recommendations found in the Add Health data documentation and perform design-based analyses which specify the clustered nature of the data and the stratification used in the sampling (Chantala and Tabor 1999). Doing so accounts for the potential non-independence of the observations and produces correct standard errors.
Specifically, the measures of delinquency, urbanicity, and test score are constructed somewhat differently. The delinquency variable is constructed using the answers to questions about whether a child committed any of nine different offenses. If a child committed a covered offense, a value of “1” was assigned for that type of offense; if not, a value of “0” was assigned. The delinquency variable is equal to the sum of the different types of offenses committed by the child. Thus, the variable’s values range from 0 to 9. The urbanicity variable takes a value of “1” if the child lives in a “completely urban area” as defined by the Census Bureau, and a “0” if not. The test score variable is the score a child received on the Peabody vocabulary picture test.
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This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due to Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/addhealth). No direct support was received from Grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.
The authors are listed in reverse alphabetical order.
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Hannon, L., DeFina, R. & Bruch, S. The Relationship Between Skin Tone and School Suspension for African Americans. Race Soc Probl 5, 281–295 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-013-9104-z
- School discipline
- African American
- Skin tone