BY JOHN SANFORD
A Harvard professor of government and Afro-American studies has proposed that skin color, rather than race, may be a better indicator of socioeconomic status in the United States.
As the speaker for this year's Wesson Lectures in Problems of Democracy, Jennifer Hochschild gave two talks last week in Building 370: "Deconstructing Race and Constructing a New Ordering" on May 5 and "The Politics and Morality of a Skin Tone Ordering" on May 6.
Hochschild's "strong" hypothesis was, in her words, that across races "the darker a person's skin color, the lower he or she is likely to be on any scale of whatever is broadly perceived to be desirable in the United States." But she admitted that most of her evidence supported a "soft" hypothesis: that skin-tone hierarchy is more relevant within racial and ethnic categories.
In other words, "one is still better off as a dark-skinned Hispanic than as an African American, because one lacks the stigma of being black and can substitute the less-stigmatized identity as an ethnic American or immigrant," she said.
Throughout her lectures, Hochschild appeared cautious about drawing concrete conclusions from her evidence, reflecting, perhaps, the complexity and sensitivity of the subject. She sprinkled her arguments with dozens of qualifications and used her fingers to express quotes so often that occasionally her hands would remain poised at forehead level as she spoke.
Toward the opening of her first lecture, she said she wasn't sure "whether the new era of skin-tone differentiation is an improvement."
"One can interpret the phenomenon of an interval scale of skin color as just as morally pernicious as the old and evil era of group-based racism -- worse even, by some lights," she explained. "But one can also interpret an interval-scale skin color hierarchy as not just a small change in the appearance and dynamics of racism, but as a means for opening up opportunities for escaping or at least modulating the old rules of racist hierarchy."
In any case, she asserted that racial and ethnic categories can no longer be used dependably in politics and scholarship. This is due in large part to the changing views people have about the concept of race. And while multiracial people are not new, "what is new is that multiracial identity has become a point of public pride and assertiveness" in the United States, she said.
In addition, it's impossible to talk clearly about "minority status" because of "the astonishing trajectory of Asian Americans," she said. Only 75 years ago, most Asians were not even allowed to immigrate to this country, and some nationalities were barred from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens or owning property. Most residents of Japanese ancestry were interned during World War II, whereas few German Americans or Italian Americans met the same fate. Now, however, most top-tier universities rely on informal quotas to keep Asian Americans from "beating out their non-Asian competitors," she said, and also cited a statistic showing that the median household income of Asian Americans in 2001 was above that of all other racial and ethnic groups.
Young African Americans who were identified as "mulatto" in the 1920 census were significantly more likely to get a white-collar job than similar children who were labeled black, she said. A 1979-80 survey found that "light-skinned blacks attain more years of education, higher-status jobs, higher incomes and higher family incomes than do dark-skinned blacks," she said. In addition, she said the 1994 Los Angeles Study of Urban Inequality showed that "being a dark-skinned African American male reduces the odds of working by 52 percent. Highly educated light-skinned black men had an unemployment rate similar to that of comparably educated white men -- 10.3 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively -- whereas dark-skinned men with the same level of education were twice as likely to be unemployed -- 19.4 percent."
Skin color appears to have the same impact among Latinos, Hochschild said, citing the Current Population Survey data from 1976 to 1984, which shows that "white Hispanic men earned more altogether, and more per year of schooling or per year of work experience, than did black men or dark-skinned Hispanic men."
She said even European Americans are affected by color gradations -- or, at least, were affected in earlier generations. "Throughout the 20th century, members of the old immigrant groups -- light-skinned northern Europeans, with the usual exception of the Irish -- have had higher standing in the eyes of fellow white Americans than have members of the new immigrant groups -- darker-skinned eastern and southern Europeans," she said.
After her second lecture, an audience member asked whether it was important to distinguish between regional attitudes about race -- that is, "the role of race and skin tone in Louisiana versus how it might be treated in Chicago." He asserted that, in some places, surnames may be more relevant than skin tone.
Hochschild replied that as an empirical matter, she agreed, but, in terms of being able to focus a presentation, consideration of all the disparate facts is prohibitive.
The annual lectures, presented by the Program in Ethics in Society, were endowed by the late Robert G. Wesson, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Jennifer Hochschild believes skin color, rather than race, may be a better indicator of socioeconomic status. Photo: L.A. Cicero
Stanford Report, May 14, 2003