Light Skin, Light Jail Time? A Dissent to Some Prominent Research

Anyone studying issues of race, ethnicity and incarceration knows that African American men, all things being equal, receive longer sentences for similarly situated crimes than White men (Uggen, Wakefield, and Western 2005). This is especially true in crimes of violence when the victims are White (Radelet and Pierce 2010). So it does not come as a surprise that a recent social science paper which identifies data that there are additional negative consequences for Blacks, separate from Whites, in the criminal justice system based on their skin color, has been receiving positive endorsements.

The paper entitled “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders: a research note” appearing in The Social Science Journal, 48 (2011) 250–258 by Jill Viglione, Lance Hannon and Robert DeFina in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Villanova University has been praised in NewsOne, The Root, Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Sentencing Project Race & Justice News and most positive of all in thisonline blog: Racism Review.

Actually, “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders” is an important paper in that it could have shown how the disparities in the US criminal justice system continues –based on the invidious distinction of skin color—and moved us beyond seeing things simply as “black and white,” had it not been for faulty science and methodology used in the research itself. For starters the researchers take at face value the coding system employed at the North Carolina prisons; coding light skinned African American women as “1”, and dark skinned African American women as “0.” Any empirical social scientist knows that extensive training of “coders” and reliability analysis must be performed before measures such as these are considered to be reliable. I see no evidence that either of these important aspects of data collection have been performed. Additionally, there is certainly widespread discussion of the complexities of color in the African American community—both discussions of it as a fact and of its impact on issues such as the restricted complexions represented in the media, in certain places of employment and so forth. Yet, most research on complexion also acknowledges that complexion occurs on a continuum. To represent it as “light” and “dark” based on a binary coding system is reductionist to the point of rendering the data potentially irrelevant.

There are, to be sure, major methodological and conceptual problems in the research that should have been addressed prior to praising the paper. For example, in the research by Thompson and Zingraff (1981), they point out that

sentence length is a product of status differentials between the offender and the victim Given: 100 white robbery offenders and 100 black robbery offenders sentenced in 1973 and matched on prior record and total number of charges intra-racial incidence of robbery in 1973: 93% of black offender robberies and 52% of white offender robberies sentence lengths (a) black offender/white victims 20 years; (b) white offender/white victim 16 years; (c) black offender/black victim 10 years; (d) white offender/black victim, 5 years. The average sentence lengths are computed as follows:
black offenders (93 X 10) + (7 X 20)/100= 10.7 years ;
white offenders (52X16)+ (48X5)/100=10.7years

The example shows that even when 100% of the judges discriminate, researchers who do not account for victim characteristics may conclude that no discrimination exists. Recent research shows similar patterns in sentencing still exist today (Tonry 2011).

In addition to the severe methodological problems plaguing this paper “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders,” in order to demonstrate this type of wide-spread discrimination based on color, rather than race, would require the authors to demonstrate collusion of benefit afforded to light skinned African Americans by arresting police officers, prosecutors, district attorneys and judges (juries) relative to darker skinned African Americans separate from the demonstrated discrimination based on race (White versus Black). The question becomes: why would this be in light of disparities in sentencing (White v. Black) that have been in existence since the formal establishment of the convict leasing system (Oshinsky 1997).

Lastly, the praise for this paper focuses almost exclusively on its ability to demonstrate the persistence of color bias inside the African American community, yet there is no evidence that the “coders” of the data are in fact African American! It is unfortunate that this paper suffers from fatal methodological flaws, as the topic, as stated above, would allow us to explore the nuances of race and the criminal justice system beyond “black and white.” It is also unfortunate that so many who praised the paper mistake it for a contribution to the “colorism” research and debates that have been a positive factor in disentangling the intra race/ethnic discrimination in the African American community that has been around ever since– If you’re black, get back. If you’re brown, stick around If you’re light, you’re alright (Hochschild and Weaver 2007; Keith and Herring 1991), also see the film by Spike Lee entitled: School Daze.

It is even more unfortunate that so many noted scholars were so quick to praise the paper and circulate it to a wider readership without engaging in the critical assessment of the methodsthat reveals flaws that lead this reader at least to conclude that the findings are irrelevant and can’t be substantiated unless more rigorous methods and reliability analysis are applied and performed.

Hochschild, Jennifer and V. Weaver. 2007. “The skin color paradox and the American racial order.” Social Forces 86:643-670.
Keith, Vera and Cedric Herring. 1991. “Skin tone stratification in the black community.” The American Journal of Sociology 97:760-778.
Oshinsky, David M. 1997. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: The Free Press.
Radelet, Michael L. and Glenn L. Pierce. 2010. “Race and Death Sentencing in North Carolina -1980-2007.” Manuscript, Colorado Springs.
Thomson, Randall and Matthew T. Zingraff. 1981. “Detecting Sentencing Disparity: Some Problems and Evidence ” American Journal of Sociology 86:869-880.
Tonry, Michael. 2011. Punishing Race. New York: OXford.
Uggen, Christopher, Sara Wakefield, and Bruce Western. 2005. “Work and Family Perspectives on Reentry ” Pp. 209-243 in Prisoner Reentry and Crime in America, edited by J. Travis and C. Visher. New York: Cambridge.

Dr. Earl Smith is professor of sociology at Wakeforest University.