4 Things You Didn't Know About the Politics of Skin Tone

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A new study found that Americans are likely to perceive a biracial candidate as having lighter skin when they agree with him, and as having darker skin when they don't. In other words, Americans associate positive qualities in a biracial politician with lighter skin. Scientists used lightened and darkened photographs of President Obama to test their theory. Pundits say the study has implications for the way we think about skin color in politics. Four takeaways:

  • When It Comes to Skin Color, Partisanship Doesn't Matter  At The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder suggests that Americans — liberal and conservative — associate lighter skin tones with positive attributes and darker skin tones with negative attributes. "In a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that self-described liberals looked at artificially lightened photographs of President Barack Obama and judged them as more representative of his actual likeness, while self-described conservative students more often chose artificially darkened photos of Obama."
  • No Need to Artificially Darken Politicians to Kill Their Candidacies  Politico's Ben Smith says the study proves voters can do that all by themselves. "The research's most practical finding seems to be that devious political hacks don't need to play games with candidates' pictures because the voters are doing it themselves."
  • 'Blackness' Is Still a Political Handicap  Just because Barack Obama was elected doesn't mean there's some post-racial utopia. That's what Tiffany Sharples O'Callaghan of Time Magazine says she learned from the study. "The findings suggest that race bias is very much alive and well in the U.S., and more insidious than we might like to believe," O'Callaghan writes. "The researchers highlight several examples in which race, or more specifically 'blackness' was emphasized to a public figure's detriment—the scandal over whether the Hillary Clinton campaign had deliberately darkened Obama's complexion in a video ad or, alas, when TIME ran a deliberately darkened photograph of O.J. Simpson on the cover following his arrest in 1994."
  • This Is Groundbreaking?  Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic doesn't think it is. He admits he "doesn't know what to make of the study," suggesting it's more about the brightness of the photo than skin tone. If you weren't convinced race is a factor in politics before, however, Coates says the study is unlikely to convince you now. "I guess there are people who don't think racism is much of a force in American life. I doubt that this will change that. For my purposes, I'm pretty much done with debating them anyway. We overrate 'dialouge,' 'conversation' and 'debate."

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