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 but is rarely acknowledged in American politics.

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


Evidence across the social sciences demonstrates that African Americans with darker skin tone have higher levels of unemployment, lower levels of wealth, face worse health outcomes, and are even much more likely to receive the death penalty than lighter skinned African Americans. “There’s history dating back centuries on divides based on skin color in our society—from the days of slavery through even the present day—yet only a handful of scholars in political science have explored skin color as potentially being politically meaningful,” Yadon said.

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 Study and two additional surveys she conducted. In the American National Election Studies data, Yadon found darker-skinned African Americans are more likely to support policies that improve welfare benefits and access to education, and shrink the income gap, compared with lighter-skinned African Americans. After developing a novel set of items to measure skin color identity, the evidence showed that darker-skinned African Americans are significantly more likely to say they think of the color of their skin, beyond their race alone, as important to their sense of self.

Mean skin color identity importance of participants in a YouGov survey of n=578 African Americans. (Question wording: “How important is your skin tone to your identity?”)

Mean skin color identity importance of participants in a YouGov survey of n=578 African Americans. (Question wording: “How important is your skin tone to your identity?”)


“Scholars often talk about skin color being meaningful in other countries around the globe, like Brazil or India. My research can help policymakers understand the pervasiveness of skin tone inequality here in the United States and how it can manifest with respect to politics,” said Yadon, a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan. “We need to make sure that when we’re talking about inequality and disadvantages, we know which groups are facing the most obstacles. Only then can we work to level the playing field.”

Yadon is also 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 own background as a white woman is an advantage in these interviews, said Vincent Hutchings, her advisor 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.”

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 plans to begin the academic job market in Fall 2018, and hopes to turn her dissertation into a book. As for what she hopes to achieve with her research: “A future direction I plan to explore is how white people respond differently to African Americans based on the color of a black person’s skin. For example, does cueing skin color along with a given policy lead to different levels of support by white people? We still have a lot to learn about how diversity in appearance influences politics, as well as what the implications are for both policy support and political candidates.”

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