Yes, we know what you’re thinking — it doesn’t take a study to tell us how colorism affects the lives of Latinos in the U.S. But when you look at the numbers in the new Pew Research Center report, we realize that the impact of skin color on Latinos’ lives is more serious than we thought.
A majority (62%) of Hispanic adults say having darker skin color hurts Hispanics’ ability to get ahead in the U.S. today, at least a little bit. A similar proportion (59%) say having lighter skin color helps Hispanics get ahead. And 57% say skin color influences their daily life experiences a lot or some. About half say discrimination based on race or skin color is a “very big problem” in the United States today, according to the Pew Research Center’s National Survey of Latinos, a bilingual national survey of 3,375 U.S. Hispanic adults conducted in March 2021.
To measure this dimension of Latino identity in the United States, the survey asked respondents to identify the skin color that most resembled their own using a version of the Yadon-Ostfeld skin color scale.
Respondents were shown ten skin colors ranging from light to dark (see text box below for images and scale used). Eighty percent of Latino adults selected a color between one and four, or lighter skin colors, while 15% selected a color between five and ten on the scale or darker skin colors.
The survey highlighted Latinos’ intricate experience with racism, where the layers of ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino) and colorism (a form of discrimination that favors lighter skin within the same ethnic group) overlap.
The study considered the historical impact of the caste system imposed in the Americas after colonization, where privileges and individual worth depended on skin color, race, and place of birth.
This distinction has been directly related to access to opportunities and continues to be an important determinant throughout the region.
As explained by the Pew Research Center, today, skin color remains an important determinant of outcomes across the region. For example, people with darker skin achieve lower levels of education or have less access to health care. And people with lighter skin color experience less discrimination than those with darker skin color.
In the United States, colorism is still present and is linked to deep-seated structural racism.
Overall, nearly half (54%) of Hispanic adults experienced at least one of the eight incidents of discrimination asked about in the survey, reflecting broader and ongoing experiences of discrimination among U.S. Hispanics, regardless of their skin color. However, the new survey reveals that Hispanics with darker skin color are more likely to have experienced at least one incident of discrimination than Hispanics with lighter skin color. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Hispanics with darker skin say they have personally experienced at least one of eight incidents of discrimination in the year before the survey. In comparison, 54% of Hispanics with lighter skin say the same.
The Persistence of Anti-Blackness Among Latinos
Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of the study was the awareness among both darker-skinned and lighter-skinned Latinos that skin color affects opportunity, which sheds light on the preeminent anti-blackness in the Latino community.
For example, majorities of both groups say skin color influences their daily life experiences: 62% among darker-skinned Latinos and 57% among lighter-skinned Latinos. And both groups are equally likely to say that darker skin color “hurts” Latinos’ ability to get ahead in the United States (63% and 64%, respectively). About half (49%) of lighter-skinned Latinos say discrimination based on race or skin color is a very big problem, as do 41% of those with darker skin.
In fact, few respondents identified with the four darkest skin colors on the version of the 10-point skin color scale used by the Pew Research Center.
Responses were overwhelmingly distributed toward the lighter skin colors. Eight in ten Hispanics selected one of the four lightest skin colors, with the second lightest leading (28%), followed by the third (21%) and fourth lightest (17%). In contrast, 15% of Latino respondents selected one of the six darkest skin colors, and only 3% overall selected one of the four darkest skin colors (7-10).
In the community introjection of colorism, respondents reported often hearing other Hispanics make racially insensitive comments and jokes about other Hispanics.
Nearly half (48%) of Hispanic adults say they have often or sometimes heard a Hispanic friend or family member make comments or jokes about other Hispanics that could be considered racist or racially insensitive. Similar proportions of Hispanics who identify with lighter (48%) or darker (52%) skin color say they have heard such comments or jokes from friends or family members at least sometimes.
An obstacle to getting ahead
While Hispanics say skin color affects their ability to get ahead in the United States, other factors are also important.
Most Hispanics say having a college degree, legal status, and lighter skin color are advantages in the U.S.
While most Latinos say skin color affects opportunities for Latinos in the U.S. today, education and immigration status are seen more as impacting the ability to get ahead.
About eight in ten Hispanics (82%) say having a college degree helps Hispanics get ahead in the U.S. today. And 78% say the same about living legally in the United States. Both figures are higher than the 59% who say lighter skin color helps Hispanics get ahead in the U.S. and the 62% who say darker skin color hurts Hispanics.