Photo of a police SUV. Photo by Raymond Wambsgans, Flickr CC

Researchers have documented racial inequality in a variety of social spaces, finding that blacks and whites face different experiences in domains such as education, employment, and the criminal justice system. Such research often sorts people into uniform racial categories such as “black” and “white.” New directions in this research, however, consider the spectrum of skin color alongside racial identity, assessing whether and how skin shade impacts life chances and social inequalities. A recent study by Ellis Monk describes how skin color relates to policing and punishment, demonstrating there are penalties associated with darker skin.

Monk draws on data from the National Survey of American Life, a nationally representative in-person survey that asks participants about their lives. During this process, interviewers noted participants’ racial identity and the darkness of their skin. Monk then used these variables to determine whether skin color or racial identity predicts participants’ arrests or incarceration. He also considered a variety of other factors, such as participants’ age, education, marital status, poverty, employment, region, history of drug use, and hometown characteristics, to better test whether skin color relates to contact with the criminal justice system.

For black Americans, darker skin color is strongly associated with being incarcerated and/or arrested, even considering all of the factors above. In fact, the penalties that darker-skinned blacks face in comparison to light-skinned blacks are comparable to the penalties that blacks as a whole face in comparison to whites. This research highlights how traditional approaches to studying racial inequality can benefit from considering how variations in skin color affect life chances in education, employment, and the criminal justice system.