Sunday, January 17, 2010

7453: Shades Of Bias.

From The Chicago Tribune…

Bigotry takes on a different shade
Experts see an increase in skin-tone bias

By Dahleen Glanton, Tribune reporter

Tamara Field is no longer shocked when people make offensive remarks about her light African-American skin tone. But sometimes, she said, the comments cause her to pause.

Once, Field said, she had to explain to a white supervisor at work why she was having lunch with the company’s minority recruiter, a common practice at jobs with few minority employees.

“I said, ‘She wants to know if I am happy with my career path here,’” said Field, 41, of Evanston, a former journalist who works in public relations. When the supervisor asked why, Field answered, “Because I’m black!”

The supervisor responded, “Oh, you’re not that black,” Field said.

The delicate issue of skin-tone bias, as opposed to traditional racism, rose to the surface recently with the revelation that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had partly attributed President Barack Obama’s appeal among voters to his being a “light-skinned” African-American.

The controversy sparked a debate among academics and those in civil rights circles over the changing face of racism, as the nation grows more ethnically diverse and multiracial and discrimination becomes increasingly subtle.

Like Obama, Field is biracial and light-skinned, a trait that she said has given her entree into diverse environments. In a changing American culture with an increasing minority population, skin color is becoming a more common gauge for some Americans—of all races—to determine who fits in and who does not, sociologists said.

A caste system that novelist Alice Walker termed “colorism” has existed within the black community since slavery, stemming from the hierarchy established by slave masters for the light-skinned blacks who worked in the house and dark-skinned slaves who tended the fields.

Pigmentocracy also has long been a divisive issue among Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups. Now, it has flowed into the mainstream, according to experts who follow bias trends.

Minorities whose skin tone is closer to white are better able to assimilate and be accepted by whites, said Ronald Hall, a sociologist at Michigan State University and co-author of “Racism in the 21st Century: An Empirical Analysis of Skin Color.”

“The basic psychological tendency is that people are less threatened by those who are perceived to be in proximity of their own racial or ethnic group,” said Hall. “Because of the increase in interracial marriages, it is more difficult now to discern someone’s racial background. But we can evaluate them by skin color.”

Last year, minorities filed a record number of color-bias complaints, specifically addressing skin-tone discrimination. Over the last two decades, the number of claims rose to 2,949 in 2009 from fewer than 400 in 1992, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported. They represent a small percentage of the more than 93,000 discrimination complaints filed last year.

While most cases involve minorities discriminating against each other for being too light or too dark, most often within the same racial group, there also are cases where whites were found to have discriminated against minorities on that basis. Federal law distinguishes race and color discrimination but they often overlap, officials said.

Historically, racial discrimination cases have targeted whites who sought to limit the hiring or advancement of blacks. In cases that involve color, white employers often make a distinction between two minorities, one light-skinned and the other dark. Such cases, according to Trina Jones, a law professor at Duke University, can be difficult to prove in court.

“Now you don’t have individuals excluding an entire racial group; they are screening and finding people who are more racially desirable within a racial group,” said Jones, who researches color bias. “A lot of it is subconscious. ... They’ve been socialized to think of dark as threatening and menacing and white as pure and innocent.”

High-profile lawsuits such as the racial discrimination case against Niketown in Chicago that resulted in a $7.6 million settlement in 2007 to former and current African-American employees, points to the modern nuances of racial bias, as people find new ways to discriminate when race is not easily determined, attorneys said.

According to the lawsuit, African-American employees in the Michigan Avenue store routinely were given lower-paying stockroom and cashier jobs, and were subjected to comments such as, “You’re lucky to be light-skinned” and “You have a big nose; I can tell you’re black.”

A growing number of sociological studies have documented that skin tone can affect economic well-being, said Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University and the author of several studies on skin color.

Researchers found that darker-skinned blacks tend to have less education than their lighter counterparts, earn less, are more likely to be unemployed and have lower job status. Her study of new immigrant workers showed those with light skin earned 17 percent more than those with darker skin.

Reid sought to defuse tensions, but Jones said, “It is not enough just to say he apologized; President Obama accepted, let’s move on.”

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