Skin Color
January 13, 2010, 12:41 AM
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Eugene Robinson, my favorite Washington Post columnist, writes:
Harry Reid's comments were crudely put, yet true

Skin color among African Americans is not to be discussed in polite company, so Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's newly disclosed remark about President Obama — that voters are more comfortable with him because he's light-skinned — offended decorum. But it was surely true.

Color bias has always existed in this country. We don't talk about it because we think of color as subordinate to racial identification.

Some distinctions should be drawn: African-Americans talk about skin color amongst themselves a lot, while American whites mentally subscribe to a sort of one-drop rule of thumb that everybody who is part black is considered black unless the skin color, hair, and facial features suggest that the person is more than 50% white, such as Jason Kidd, Derek Jeter, and Mariah Carey. To be more than 50% white suggests that one of your parents might identify as white, which is an interesting thing to know about a celebrity. It's a very interesting thing to know about a Presidential candidate.

At the other end, whites don't particularly notice distinctions in dark skin color until it becomes so dark it takes on blue or purple highlights, such as Avatar-like basketball player Manute Bol and the fat girl in Precious. White people (and African-Americans as well) tend to be a little weirded out by blue, a color you don't see much of among mammals. But blueishness is very rare among African Americans, and not even that common among Africans — you might see it in Senegal or Sudan but seldom in Nigeria.

... Advertising is a reliable window into the American psyche, so look at the images we're presented on television and in glossy magazines. The black models tend to be caramel-skinned or lighter, with hair that's not really kinky — which is how I'd describe mine — but wavy, even flowing. A few models whose skin is chocolate-hued or darker have reached superstar status, such as Alek Wek and Tyson Beckford, but they are rare exceptions.
The other obvious distinction Robinson skips over is that skin color and hair length matters far more to the success of African American female celebrities than to African American male celebrities. If you want to be a dancer in a rap video, you'd better be fairer-skinned than the rapper.

On the other hand, it's hard to remember exactly how dark or fair African American male celebrities are. It's just not a big issue for men. Looking at pictures of them together, I'd say that Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are a little darker than average for African-Americans, while Will Smith is average to a little lighter than average. A lot of black athletes tend to be a little darker than normal because success in sports tends to correlate with having more West African genes. On the other hand, black intellectuals tend to be fairer than average.

Robinson goes on to make some good points about the Latin American way of defining races:

Skin color could hardly be a more conspicuous attribute, but we don't talk about it in this country. That's been a good thing.

I became interested in perceptions of color and race when I was The Post's correspondent in South America. On reporting trips to Brazil, a country with a history of slavery much like ours, I kept running across people with skin as dark as mine, or a bit darker, who didn't consider themselves "black." I learned that at the time — roughly 20 years ago — fewer than 10 percent of Brazilians self-identified as black. Yet at least half the population, I estimated, would have been considered black in the United States.

This was because American society enforced the "one-drop" rule: If you had any African blood at all, you were black. In Brazil, by contrast, you could be mulatto, you could be light-skinned, you could be "Moorish" brown, all the way to "blue-black" — more than a dozen informal classifications in all. Color superseded racial identification. In Salvador da Bahia, I met a couple who considered themselves black but whose children were lighter-skinned. The children's birth certificates classified them as branco, or white.

The Brazilian system minimized racial friction on an interpersonal level.

Well, I would think the Brazilian system would causes huge amounts of sibling rivalry and resentment among sisters of different hues. Imagine if your sister is much fairer than you, and your parents invest (rationally) in dresses and dance lessons for your sister to enable her to marry up in society, while skimping on you as a hopeless case. That happens less under the American one-drop rule, although it still happens.
The American system fostered such friction, through formal and informal codes that enforced racial segregation. But our "one-drop" paradigm also created great racial solidarity among African Americans, while maximizing our numbers. We fought, marched, sat in, struggled and eventually made tremendous strides toward equality. The most recent, of course, was Obama's election, which is difficult to imagine happening in Brazil — or, for that matter, in any other country where there is a large, historically oppressed minority group.

Brazil has now begun addressing long-standing racial disparities through affirmative action initiatives. But the upper reaches of that society — the financial district in Sao Paulo, say, or the government ministries in Brasilia — are still so exclusively white that they look like bits and pieces of Portugal that somehow ended up on the wrong side of the ocean.

American society's focus on race instead of color explains why what Harry Reid said was so rude. But I don't think it can be a coincidence that so many pioneers — Edward Brooke, the first black senator since Reconstruction; Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice; Colin Powell, the first black secretary of state — have been lighter-skinned. Reid's analysis was probably good sociology, even if it was bad politics.

There's a simpler explanation for why successful black athletes are blacker on average than successful black academics.

Anyway, I'm interested in whether anybody has studied how well the upper ranks of African Americans have managed to preserve their social systems for marrying their daughters off to young men who could pass the paper bag test? The Black Is Beautiful revolution of the 1960s drove them underground. Yet, the recent interracial dating movie Something New showed that the light-skinned elite still have debutante's balls, but how well do the upscale African-American elders succeed in keeping their fair daughters out of the manly arms of blacker men?