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Study: Dark-Skinned Immigrants Experience More Wage Discrimination in the United States

Recent immigrants with darker skin tones earn less money on average than their lighter-skinned peers, according to research that will be presented Feb. 19 in San Francisco at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr. Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University, found that a lighter-skinned immigrant would earn the equivalent of what a darker-skinned immigrant with an extra year of education would earn.

The basis for the study was the New Immigrant Survey 2003, funded by several federal government agencies and the Pew Charitable Trust. The survey took a random sample of 8,500 new legal immigrants over a seven-month period in 2003. Participants were from geographically diverse countries and were interviewed at the location where their green cards were delivered to ensure geographic diversity in the United States as well, Hersch says.

Several other factors were taken into consideration as controls, including people’s actual level of education, English proficiency, work history, occupation, visa status, race, ethnicity and nationality. Despite this, Hersch says there was an 8 percent to 15 percent variable from lightest to darkest skin tone in terms of earnings once immigrants were in the United States.

Many countries, such as India, have caste systems that could impact a person’s education, economic performance and achievement overall. But Hersch says the study took into account castes and other socioeconomic factors that correlate with skin tone.

“It isn’t how dark you are relative to your own country, but seems to be how dark you are here that affects earnings,” she says, noting discrimination in the United States seems to be the reason for the wage disparity. “I cannot explain the earnings disparities based on anything else; I took into account every possible nondiscriminatory reason. It could be that interviewers had a bias when asked to describe the person’s skin color, but I took that into consideration, too. It wasn’t education, it wasn’t occupation, it wasn’t outdoor work [which tends to pay less than office work and can impact skin tone], it wasn’t the part of the country people were living in and it wasn’t language proficiency. Discrimination becomes a distinct possibility. What this study says is there is an unexplained gap that cannot be explained by any other factor.

Hersch says she was interested in studying the topic after completing a study titled “Skin Tone Effects Among African Americans: Perceptions and Reality,” which was published in 2006 in the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings .

Hersch notes that her findings could support increased discrimination lawsuits based on skin tone. “Title VII protects color, and there have been increased filings based on color in the EEOC.”

— By Dina Horwedel


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