December 13th, 2012
12:00 PM ET

Opinion: Colorism is the new "ism"

Editor’s Note: Ronald E. Hall, Ph.D. is a professor at Michigan State University and the author of "The Melanin Millennium." He has lectured on skin color both domestically and internationally, and testified as an expert witness in skin color discrimination cases. His forthcoming book is a revised edition of "The Color Complex."

By Ronald E. Hall, Special to CNN

(CNN) - In the early part of this century, there were separate facilities for blacks and whites, the Ku Klux Klan was a popular white supremacist organization and racism was easy to see.

In 1964, civil rights legislation outlawed racial discrimination, and there has been an advance of racial equality, including the election, and re-election of the first black president.

But while overt acts of racism have declined, discrimination continues in another form: colorism.

Colorism is a manifestation of how Western imperialism has exported European ideals, most notably the universal idealization of light skin, to American shores.

Not only have whites discriminated against blacks because of skin color, but people of color have also discriminated against one another. While colorism has existed for some time, it has only been recently acknowledged, as seen in the increase of legal cases and studies examining this “ism.”

Colorism is rooted in the long span of American history. The NAACP’s Crisis magazine printed an editorial on a heated exchange between the light-skinned W. E. B. DuBois and the dark-skinned Marcus Garvey. DuBois referred to Garvey as "fat, black” and “ugly,"  as if to suggest that a dark skin color denoted inferiority. Such an exchange was not an anomaly. A prominent NAACP official referred to Garvey by skin color, as a "Jamaican Negro of unmixed stock.” The not-so-subtle derogatory remark implied that having dark skin was unattractive.

Recently, I was retained as an expert witness for a suit filed against Sears Holding Management Corp. in Chicago. The plaintiff in the case was African-American, and previously employed by the defendant as an executive. In filing suit, the plaintiff alleged she was denied equal pay, promotion and then terminated on the basis of her age, race and skin color. According to testimony, a light-skinned African-American male employee of the company with less seniority cooperated in the plaintiff’s eventual termination. The case is ongoing.

In 1989, the Federal District Court of Atlanta heard the case of Walker vs. the Internal Revenue Service. Tracey Walker, the plaintiff, alleged that her IRS supervisor discriminated against her via performance evaluations on the basis of skin color. This is a landmark case as both the plaintiff and her supervisor are African-Americans. The plaintiff is light-skinned, whereas the defendant, by comparison, is dark-skinned. The presiding judge determined that such discrimination is a fact in the African-American community but that the plaintiff had failed to prove it to his satisfaction in her particular case.

The issue has not only been among African-Americans. In Felix v. Marquez, a case litigated in 1981 by the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, the litigants were employees of the Office of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in Washington. The darker-skinned Felix alleged that the lighter-skinned defendant did not promote her because of colorism. During the trial, Felix contended that only two of her 28 fellow employees were as dark or darker in skin color than she, which Felix suggested is the reason she was not promoted.

The increase in legal cases has been telling of the increase in acknowledging colorism in the United States, and recent studies have also explored the topic around the world.

Eurogamy is a discriminatory marital pattern based on having light skin. Eurogamy was demonstrated in a study done in Asia using random samples of a mail-order bride magazine published from 1991 through 2000. In the study, 620 Asian females were questioned about their spousal preferences. When light skin was a requirement for marriage, 96% of the females requested Caucasian men, 2% requested Asian men and 2% requested Hispanic men.

Colorism is manifested in discriminatory references to skin color, even who is seen as a suitable mate: If there is no action, it will continue as another insidious “ism” of the new millennium.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ronald E. Hall.

soundoff (6 Responses)
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    July 31, 2013 at 12:17 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jorge

    The pseudoscience of racial hygiene and eugenics was mistakenly adopted in reaction to an increase in morbidity among Northern Europeans during the late 19th-early 20th century which was really caused by shallow gene pools, poor public health practices and inadequate diet. Without any fundamental scientific process, these self-fed conclusions led to policies of racial supremacy and ethnic cleansing, which spread throughout the Old World and ultimately led to the Olympic sociopolitical failure that was WWII. Ironically, it was the destruction and evident fallacious impracticability of old established orders brought about after WWII that led Europe out of cultural and political stagnation, in spite of the Cold War.

    February 22, 2013 at 11:58 am | Report abuse |
  3. damphoose

    This is the stupidest thing I have ever read. They are mail order brides! Of course 96% of them selected Caucasians. I'm surprised it was not 100%. These are woman specifically looking to marry foreigners. Geez.

    February 12, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Andre

    Too bad this didn't get more coverage, got over shadowed by the school shooting

    December 19, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. secondtolaststonecarver

    It goes to show how lawyers are capitalizing on EVERYTHING and saying, "Sure, we can say your case has merit under discrimination laws, you're lighter/darker than the person you want to sue. Of course our fees are not sliding scale based on skin tone."

    December 19, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  6. laststonecarver

    Darkness or Lightness of skin tone is indicative of continued existance near Equatorial (skin tone darkness), or Polar (skin tone lightness) zones.
    Racism is mental illness, and is not relative to skin tone.
    Seeing Ugly is a vision aberration, and is not relative to skin tone.

    December 14, 2012 at 6:30 am | Report abuse |