Do fairer skinned black women get lighter sentences?

Michelle Balani, The Grio | June 23, 2011

There has been a great deal of discussion and research centered around whether skin tone in the African-American community plays a role in a person’s success in life and their treatment of society. And now, it seems that the scope has been expanded to the judicial system. A recent study conducted at Villanova University found that skin tone had a direct effect on the length of jail sentences given to black women in the North Carolina prison system, as well as the time that they served.

The research discovered that black women who were perceived to have a light skin tone were sentenced to considerably more lenient sentences, roughly 12 percent less time in prison than those with a dark skin tone. Light skinned black women also served roughly 11 percent less time in prison than their dark skin counterparts. The influence of skin tone in a person’s life has often been examined and debated, but this new study sheds light on the fact that colorism, or racial preference based on skin tone, may be alive and well in our judicial system, and it begs the question: is justice really blind in the United States?

“Justice is not blind, in fact, it’s more accurate to describe justice as nearsighted,” said Lance Hannon, a sociology professor at Villanova University who co-authored the study with Sociology Professor Robert Defina and former graduate student Jill Viglione. “Justice is too often decided by one’s ability to sympathize with a defendant or crime victim. Sympathy, in turn, is often the product of larger social forces like segregation and media depictions of certain groups. Among blacks, characteristics associated with whiteness appear to have a significant impact on important life outcomes, such as the amount of time one spends in jail. The current study adds to a growing body of colorism research that underscores the complexity of racism in our society.”  (Read more)