When Lighter Skin Equals Lighter Sentences

A few months ago Cara wrote a piece on colorism in the black community. The idea that having lighter skin offers advantages not available to darker skin black folks is a conversation black folks (especially black women) have been having for a long time.  Often, we speak about colorism on the individual level. We talk about our own lived experiences and how colorism has impacted us personally. And while I wholly believe that it is important to have these personal conversations, it’s equally important to showcase the real-world systemic impacts that colorism and racism can have on society.

Take criminal justice as an example.

There’s a strong body of research highlighting the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. From arrests, to sentencing, to parole opportunities, and probation — for no other reason than being black, you can face much greater penalties at each step of the judicial process. But does the shade of your black matter? Does colorism have an impact on, say, how long you’ll be locked up?

In order to answer this question, researchers from Villanova University collected data on black female inmates serving time in North Carolina. The data set was immense — containing over 12,000 individual records defined by a number of variables including details on the crime committed, length of sentence, and whether or not the inmate had a pre-existing record. Most importantly, the data set also included information on an inmates skin tone, and body size.

Sadly, the results bear out exactly how you’d expect.

All else equal, when two black women, who are the same age, commit the same crime and have the same criminal history, are sentenced, lighter skin can shorten your time behind bars by about 12 percent. In other words, a sentence of two years — or 24 months — falls to roughly 21 months if you have the ‘right’ skin tone.

These kinds of results have a couple of consequences. First, our criminal justice system — if you didn’t already know — is seriously effed up. We like to think that the current rules punish the bad guys and exonerate the good ones — in truth, it’s really more of a crapshoot — with black and brown folks getting hit the hardest.

Second, these are the kinds of things that contribute to the color caste system within the black community. Shorter sentences mean more time available to rebuild your life, it means less time away from work and less lost income. It means shorter time periods of family disruption.

What’s the remedy? For starters, I’m sure as heck not advocating that light skinned folk get longer sentences –instead, I’d rather see massive reductions in prison time for everyone regardless of shade or race. But to do that — to really address the issue of mass incarceration — we’ll inevitably need to talk about why the system exists in the first place.



  1. I’d love to know whether sentencing an offender “blind” would work. Imagine if the judge and jury only knows the name, gender, age and criminal history of the offender, and they either sit in a closed off room, or just don’t enter the court room. If the name leans more toward one colour than another, they should only be referred to as the accused.

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