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Darker-Skinned African-American Students Suspended More Frequently


Robert DeFinaRobert DeFina

When it comes to disparities in school suspension rates, most studies deal with the fact that Black students are suspended more frequently than their White counterparts for the same or similar offenses.

A new groundbreaking study done by a trio of sociology professors takes a more nuanced look at the matter by examining the differences in suspension rates among African-Americans of different complexions.

The study—titled “The Relationship Between Skin Tone and School Suspension for African Americans”—found that darker-skinned African-American students were more likely to be suspended than those with lighter skin tones.

Specifically, the researchers found that a young African-American female with the darkest skin tone was 3.4 times as likely to be suspended compared to the one with the lightest skin.

The darkest skin African-American males were only 2.5 times as likely to be suspended as those with the lightest skin tones, but the study notes that African-American males—for whom the “controlling image … is of a dangerous, criminal predator”—experience higher rates of suspensions than females overall, the study states.

The findings show that the broad categories of race that are often used are inadequate to capture the various forms of discrimination that impact African-Americans of different hues—from school discipline to more serious matters, such as capital punishment.

“This is important because it’s a way in which the idea of race and racial hierarchy plays into all different kinds of aspects of life,” said Robert DeFina, Professor and Chairperson Department of Sociology and Criminology at Villanova University.

“And what this (study) does is it kind of complements the idea of race itself in these kind of racial categories that we use,” define said.

To do the study, DeFina and his colleagues—Lance Hannon, also a sociology professor at Villanova, and Sarah Bruch, a sociology professor at the University of Iowa—mined data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which in 2010 began using a measure of “interviewer-assessed” skin tone in its National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The measure involves 10 shades of skin color that correspond to a 1-to-10 “color scale.”

The study’s findings of a positive correlation between darker skin and higher suspension rates held even after other factors were taken into account, such as the socioeconomic status of the students’ parents, delinquent behavior, academic performance and other variables.

As research literature, the study provides a rich contextual and historical discussion of “colorism”—that is, the distinctions that have been made among Blacks of different skin tones in the United States since the days of the antebellum South.

For instance, it notes how one of the earliest uses of the term “colorism” in American popular culture was by Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” who described it in 1983 as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”

It makes note of the infamous “one-drop rule” based on the idea that “a single drop of black blood made one black.” And it acknowledges the societal realities that gave rise to the longstanding phrase, “If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re light, you’re alright.’”

Lance HannonLance Hannon

DeFina said the idea to examine school suspension rates by skin tone grew out of research he and Hannon did in North Carolina, where they found that lighter-skinned Black women received lesser punishments and served less time behind bars than darker-skinned Black women.

Going forth, DeFina said the findings on the correlation between skin tone and suspension rates for African-American students show that governmental agencies and authority figures need to reexamine and question their disciplinary practices to make sure that they are fair.

He cited a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, task force called E-RACE—an acronym for Eradicating Racism and Colorism from Employment—as an example of an agency that had begun to deal with the issue. The study notes that, while the task force deals mostly with race-based complaints, the number of complaints based on skin tone has nearly tripled in recent years.

“By bringing it to the fore and making people conscious and aware of it and think about it, we can start to reconsider,” DeFina said.

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