Skin Color and Social Mobility: Evidence From Mexico

Abstract

In many Latin American countries, census data on race and skin color are scarce or nonexistent. In this study, we contribute to understanding how skin color affects intergenerational social mobility in Mexico. Using a novel data set, we provide evidence of profound social stratification by skin color, even after controlling for specific individual characteristics that previous work has not been able to include, such as individual cognitive and noncognitive abilities, parental education and wealth, and measures of stress and parenting style in the home of origin. Results indicate that people in the lightest skin color category have an average of 1.4 additional years of schooling and 53 % more in hourly earnings than their darkest-skinned counterparts. Social mobility is also related to skin color. Individuals in the darkest category are 20 percentile ranks lower in the current wealth distribution than those in the lightest category, conditional on parental wealth. In addition, results of a quantile regression indicate that the darkest group shows higher downward mobility.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The exception is Brazil, where information on ethnoracial identification is available in the official census and incorporated into public policy (Bailey 2009; Daniel 2006; Dixon and Telles 2017; Schwartzman 2007).

  2. 2.

    Legal restrictions, for example, prohibited the members of the lower castas from occupying important government positions or living in certain neighborhoods (Meyer et al. 2013; Villarreal 2010).

  3. 3.

    Loveman (2014) provided an extensive analysis of this topic for the entire Latin American region, noting that census queries about skin color and other phenotypic features disappeared in the mid-twentieth century mainly because domestic political agendas followed international definitions of modernization and development.

  4. 4.

    In general, this research is based on two data sets: the LAPOP and the 2010 PERLA. Together, the two databases include information for 18 of the 19 countries in Latin America, omitting only Cuba. Our data set, the Survey of Social Mobility in Mexico (SSM-2015), represents an important additional resource for research on the topic.

  5. 5.

    A separate case in Latin America is Brazil, where the relationship between skin color and ethnoracial stratification is widely acknowledged, data on skin color and other phenotypic characteristics are officially collected, and the academic and political debates on racial stratification have led to policies of affirmative action (Bailey 2009; Daniel 2006; Schwartzman 2007).

  6. 6.

    In Spanish, Encuesta de Movilidad Social 2015. The survey is publicly available at http://movilidadsocial.colmex.mx/index.php/encuesta. For a detailed guide, see Campos-Vazquez (2016).

  7. 7.

    Urban was defined as a community of 100,000 inhabitants or more. By this definition, the urban population of Mexico is close to 50 % of the total. This limitation of the survey does not compromise our results. As we explain later, our results are very similar to those presented in Flores and Telles (2012), which are representative at the national level. The results associated with the variable of interest (skin color) and results with other controls are of similar magnitude and sign, as discussed in the section, Skin Color and Life Outcomes. Our sample is also larger than the one Flores and Telles used, giving us greater statistical power.

  8. 8.

    The social mobility survey consists of two separate questionnaires designed specifically for adults and teenagers. To avoid interference in answers, interviewers surveyed parents and children separately. In this article, we analyze only the adult responses.

  9. 9.

    The PERLA color palette is the result of Telles’s (2014) arduous identification and classification of the phenotypes of Latin America. More information can be found at https://perla.princeton.edu/perla-color-palette. Using this palette, several studies have analyzed the effect of skin color on economic outcomes in Latin America. For an international perspective, see Glenn (2009) for a discussion of the impact of skin color inequality independent of race in different national contexts.

  10. 10.

    One potential concern about using an interviewer-based measure is that respondents’ socioeconomic status could bias interviewer evaluations of skin color. In other words, social class may change ethnoracial perception in a “money whitening effect,” whereby wealth could drive interviewers’ classifications into whiter categories (Telles et al. 2015). The SSM sought to minimize such effects through the use of a color palette and by thoroughly training the evaluators. A further concern is that interviewers’ classifications may be influenced by factors such as their own education or gender. However, previous studies have found that neither the sex nor the educational attainment of interviewers is a significant predictor of their color ratings in Mexico (Telles et al. 2015; Villarreal 2010).

  11. 11.

    This figure is close to the value of 4.5 (SD = 1.41) reported for Mexico in Telles et al. (2015).

  12. 12.

    In the online appendix, we include results using each noncognitive variable separately instead of aggregated into a single index. The results are unchanged.

  13. 13.

    That is, we estimated yi = α0 + β × Parenti + ε, where yi is the individual’s current wealth, expressed as an index, and Parenti corresponds to the calculated parental wealth index. We estimated this regression separately for the subsamples white (PERLA 1–3), brown (PERLA 4–5), and dark brown (PERLA 6–11) and plotted the prediction from the regression.

  14. 14.

    Additional results are shown in the online appendix. We quantified the effect of skin color on mobility by estimating conditional quantile regressions of current against parental percentile rank of wealth, sex, age, and age squared. The main result of this regression is that the brown and dark brown (PERLA 6–11) groups show lower coefficients for parental wealth than the other groups. It is as if parental wealth provides less insurance against very bad outcomes for those in the dark brown group. Simply put, the dark brown group experiences higher rates of downward mobility than other groups.

  15. 15.

    However, other potential factors related to discrimination have not been explored, such as differences in personal aspirations and social identity associated with phenotypic differences (Gilliam et al. 2016; Hoff and Pandey 2014; Hordge-Freeman 2015; Jones et al. 2012; Rangel 2015; Steele 2010; World Bank 2015).

  16. 16.

    Specifically, we define five skin tone groups—white (PERLA 1–3), light brown (4), medium brown (5), brown (6), and dark brown (7–11)—and estimate \( {y}_i={\upalpha}_0+{\updelta}_i\times {\sum}_{i=2}^5 Ski{n}_{group}+\upbeta \times {\mathbf{X}}_i+\upvarepsilon \), where yi is either years of schooling or log earnings for individual i, and Xi is a vector of individual characteristics. In this way, we compare life outcomes for each skin tone group relative to the lightest. We also estimate yi = α0 + δ × Skintone + β × Xi + ε, where Skintone corresponds to the standardized PERLA skin tone classification. The color scale runs from 1 to 11, with 1 the lightest color and 11 the darkest. Several specifications of this reduced-form relationship are estimated, and the results for years of schooling and log earnings are reported in the online appendix.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the Sectorial Fund for Research on Social Development of the Mexican National Council on Science and Technology (CONACyT) and the Secretary of Social Development (Sedesol; Project No. 217909). We thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor for thoughtful comments and suggestions that substantially improved the paper. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the authors.

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Correspondence to Raymundo M. Campos-Vazquez.

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Campos-Vazquez, R.M., Medina-Cortina, E.M. Skin Color and Social Mobility: Evidence From Mexico. Demography 56, 321–343 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-018-0734-z

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Keywords

  • Discrimination
  • Skin color
  • Social mobility
  • Stratification
  • Mexico