Graduate student explores the differences skin color means for African Americans

People’s political choices are inextricably linked to their identity. For graduate student Nicole Yadon, policy preferences extend beyond black and white racial groups. In her dissertation The Politics of Skin Color, she argues skin color is a politically meaningful social identity for African Americans and is rarely acknowledged in American politics.

Her research, an outgrowth of the 2015 Hanes Walton Jr. Endowment for Graduate Study in Racial and Ethnic Politics award, focuses on skin tone and stereotypes using data from the American National Elections Survey. She argues African Americans with darker skin tone have higher levels of unemployment, face worse health outcomes, and are more likely to receive the death penalty than lighter skinned Blacks.

Hands shaded from pale to dark, numbered 1-10, where 1-5 is 30% of the sample, 5 & 6 are 40%, and 7-10 are 30%

The scale used by interviewers to assess the skin tone of African American respondents in the 2012 American National Election Study


As a result, Yadon found darker skinned Blacks are more likely to support policies that improve welfare benefits and access to education, and shrink the income gap, compared with lighter skinned Blacks.

“My research can help policymakers understand the pervasiveness of skin tone inequality in politics,” said Yadon, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan. “We need to make sure these subgroups receive more policy benefits or are receiving those benefits period.”

Yadon is building on existing literature about diversity in the black community by conducting in-depth interviews with black people about the social and political implications of skin tone. Her whiteness is an advantage in these interviews, said Vincent Hutchings, her mentor and professor of political science and research professor at the Center for Political Studies. “In a way her status as a white person makes it easier for the interviewees to talk in their own words about this phenomenon.”

Yadon worked with Vincent Hutchings, professor of political science and research professor at the Center for Political Studies, Hakeem Jefferson, Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Political Science and CPS affiliate, and Neil Lewis Jr., doctoral student in the department of Psychology to write a paper on the subject in 2015. The group presented at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco. Hutchings, Yadon’s professor and mentor, has been working with her on her dissertation.

Graph shows various correlations between 3 skin color categories and family income, home ownership and health insurance. In all three categories, the lighter skin colors are higher than the darker.

The relationship between skin color and class, with data from the 2012 American National Election Study.


“Nicole’s research is an exceptionally sensitive subject to study,” said Hutchings. “Her decision to pursue it even though she’s not African American, and not simply because she’s interested but because she’s committed to shedding light on this issue, however painful it may be to address the inequities associated with it, shows the moral courage she has to take on an issue that others consider too hot to touch.”

Yadon is expected to graduate in two years, and hopes to turn her dissertation into a book. As for what she hopes to achieve with her research: “One big direction I hope to explore is how white people respond to perceived criminality of African Americans based on the color of a black person’s skin. We have a lot to learn about the differences between whites and blacks when they make their policy decisions. I anticipate there’s more nuance there.”

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