What do we mean when we say race?


by Ellis P. Monk, Jr.

This seemingly simple, yet deceptively complex question is at the heart of burgeoning research on the ‘multidimensionality’ of race.  This research attempts to answer this opening question by considering a range of different measures of “race” as a concept – but what are these different dimensions?  And what dimensions seem to matter most when we measure social inequality?

In the United States, for example, many people associate race with ancestry.  This makes sense given the historical legacies of antiquated, purportedly “scientific” theories of race and the persistence of the ‘one-drop rule.’  Following this rule, individuals with ‘any known trace’ of African ancestry are to be classified as black.  Over the course of a few centuries this rule eventually was embraced by whites and non-whites alike resulting in the common folk notion of race that has been dominant in the U.S. for decades.

While it is clear that the population of ‘mixed-race’ individuals has grown tremendously in the United States, recent estimates show that less than 3% of the U.S. population identifies as ‘one or more race.’  Just think of President Barack Obama, whose “mixed” ancestry is well-known, but openly identifies as ‘black’ and, notably, does so on the U.S. census too.

The fact remains that most individuals with African ancestry simply view themselves as black and are viewed by the majority of the people they encounter in their daily lives simply as black.

Along with considerable ancestral diversity among African Americans is considerable diversity in their physical appearance – particularly, skin color.  This is not just among those labeled ‘mixed-race,’ but even within families that are ostensibly ‘monoracially black.’

Indeed, what anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker observed nearly a century ago still holds today: “Within the Negro group every possible shade of color between jet black and creamy white exists; and variations occur even within the same shade.” Previous research on the topic has shown that these shades of color have been associated with considerable inequality in nearly every realm of life from the educational system to the criminal justice system to health, wealth, and marriage among African Americans for centuries.

Some have argued that skin color inequality among African Americans, which originated in slavery is now a thing of the past. My own research, however, shows that differences in skin tone among African Americans continue to be strongly associated with important outcomes such as educational attainment, earnings, marital patterns, and even mental and physical health in the early 21st century – contrary to the idea that the significance of color in the U.S. is a relic of the past. 

Notably, the magnitude of these contemporary inequalities in socioeconomic status and health within the black population often rivals or even exceeds inequalities found between blacks and whites as a whole.

Most research, however, continues to only use census race categories as their measure of race for quantifying racial inequality.  Unfortunately, these categories, while important, do not necessarily capture the complex, gradational differences in race that research on social cognition shows that we notice in everyday life.

Differences in skin color are central to how race is perceived in everyday life.  These differences have real consequences because they are linked to stereotypes and, thus, discrimination.

My research focuses on understanding the consequences of these important, gradational differences in how race is perceived in everyday life – not only in the United States, but also Brazil. Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world, actually received many millions more Africans (who were ultimately forced into slavery) than the United States.  Consequently, Brazil has a substantial population of African-descendants.

Nevertheless, unlike in the United States, a ‘one-drop’ rule never developed in Brazil.  Instead of a strict dichotomy between black and white, Brazil is well-known for its complex, ambiguous, multi-layered system of race and color categories, all of which mark locations along a color continuum.  Put simply, ‘known’ African ancestry is not enough for someone to self-identify as ‘black’ on a census or even to be seen as ‘black’ by others.

Ironically, however, it is the United States, a country infamous for its strict color line, which has a long history of quantitative research on the color continuum.  Quantitative research on racial inequality in Brazil that focuses on the significance of skin color has been virtually non-existent.  The data have just not been available.

In my recently published study, however, I tackle this question head-on.  I use one of the first nationally-representative data sets on Brazil to include interviewer-ratings of skin color – the Latin American Public Opinion/PERLA (Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America) 2010.  I not only examine how much color is associated with inequality in Brazil, but also which dimension of “race” – census category “race” or skin color – is the most strongly associated with socioeconomic inequality in Brazil.

What did I find?

I find that skin color is strongly associated with education in Brazil.  In fact, the education gap between the lightest and darkest-skinned Brazilians (aged 25 and older) is nearly 2 years.  The relationship remains even after taking into account individual’s parent’s SES. Similarly, even after taking individual’s levels of education into account, skin color is significantly associated with individual’s occupational status.

I also examine whether skin color – as rated by interviewers – is a stronger predictor of socioeconomic inequality than the measure of “race” used in most research – census “race” (typically a matter of self-identification just like in the United States).  I find that skin color is a stronger predictor of educational attainment and occupational status in Brazil than census “race.”

Skin color even remains a significant predictor of educational attainment and occupational status after taking census “race” into account.

The significance of skin color in the Americas

Race may be understood differently in the U.S. and Brazil, but the significance of skin color, a key marker of how race is perceived, is a common thread that unites them. In each country, skin color inequality rivals or even exceeds racial inequality (as measured census “race” categories).

The message is clear: to truly understand racial inequality it is not enough to only consider what box someone checks on a census form – we also need to measure how we are perceived by others in our everyday lives and they see far more than what box they think we belong to.  They also see all of the fine-tuned, gradational differences along a continuum of racial difference.

Still, compelling questions about how skin color produces these substantial inequalities remain.

I take on this important issue in my book (in progress), tentatively titled, Coloring Race: Ancestry, Appearance, and Inequality in the U.S. and Brazil (under contract at the University of Chicago Press).  Here, I draw on in-depth interviews I conducted in the U.S. and Brazil, to address how skin color and hair – two primary markers of the perception of race – produce and reproduce social inequalities within families, in the education system, the labor market, the criminal justice system, and even in dating and mating.

By understanding more deeply how and when color matters, we can do the important work of crafting strategies and policies to combat this pernicious form of inequality in the Americas.

Ellis P. Monk, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Associate of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University.

Image: Rodrigo Soldon via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)


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