Research: Lighter skin color, lighter prison sentence for Black women

An extensive new research study provides compelling evidence that lighter skin color is strongly associated with receiving a lighter prison sentence. The research is presented in a new article called, “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders,” and is published in The Social Science Journal (Volume: 48, Issue: 1, Pages: 258-250). The study’s authors, Jill Viglione, Lance Hannon, and Robert DeFina, are researchers at Villanova University.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Thiago Souto

To conduct this study, the researchers examined the records of 12,158 women incarcerated in North Carolina prisons between 1995 and 2009.  The North Carolina Department of Corrections tracks certain information about each inmate to faciliate prisoner identification. This information includes inmate hair color, eye color, height, weight, and body build. Most relevant to this study, skin tone is also recorded. Light skin tone is assigned a code of 1, and dark skin tone is assigned a code of 0.

Using statistical analysis, researchers were able to “control for” (or, hold constant) factors such as prior record, conviction date, prison misconduct, and being thin, as well as whether the woman was convicted of homicide or robbery since these crimes usually carry lengthy prison sentences. With regard to prison sentences, their results indicate that women deemed to have light skin are sentenced to approximately 12% less time behind bars than their darker skinned counterparts. The results also show that having light skin reduces the actual time served by approximately 11%.

The study confirms other research that shows similar results for Black men, that is, that the lighter skin color, the lighter prison sentences (e.g., Gyimah-Brempong, K. and Price, G. N., “Crime and Punishment: And Skin Hue Too?” American Economic Review, (2006), 96; 2, pages 246-250).

This research also also confirms the common knowledge in much of the black community about lighter skin color. When Harry Reid “inartfully” pointed out that Obama had a better chance at being elected to high office because of his lighter skin, it was Colin Powell who agreed with Reid.

The reality is that lighter skin color makes navigating a racist society easier.


  1. NimWhatever

    It is a sad thing honestly, that skin color still plays such a huge role in everything from getting jobs, to prison sentences. I’ve observed things within my own family supporting this articles’ findings.

    My family comes in all sorts of shades, from looking almost latin American, to white, to the darkest you can get, and I fall on the lighter side of the spectrum, just past the middle mark. What I’ve noticed is how people from other cultures (usually white) view us. When I try to get a job, I have a much easier time than say my mother (who is darker than me) and her ex-boyfriend (who had a ridiculously hard time getting noticed by anyone, and openly ridiculed because of his dark skin tone.) Between the three of us, I must be honest and say that my mother and her ex boyfriend were both harder workers than me, in the sense that they had jobs that demanded much more labor than I ever have. In that sense, it would make more sense logically that they would be the best candidates for a job over me, right? But no. Not saying i’m lazy, but they WOULD be better candidates than me, yet I secure jobs with ease, and they struggle. Even more so than me, lighter skinned cousins of mine who are my age get jobs offers more often that require little strain, and are well paying. The most financially well off in our family are lighter skinned as well. So it comes as no surprise to me that people with lighter skin would also get lighter sentences. It’s wrong, but it’s true.


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