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The Color Stigma: Still a Reality in 21st Century America
“I have low self-esteem cuz I’m dark skinned [and] that’s not accepted in the black community. I mean I’m not bad lookin’. I have hair past my shoulders [and] I can dress my tail off! So why do [sic] it matter the color of my skin. I’m just as good as light-skinned girls right?” a high school junior asked in 2005 before adding, “I don’t kno[w] anymore. I’m about to jus[t] give up. What’s the point in tryin’ when no one’s gonna give me a chance.”
Back at a small real estate firm, a 36 year-old black receptionist noted that the staff treated her children differently than those of her white coworkers. “They showed less warmth and friendliness,” she stated in 2002.
Anecdotal statements are not the only evidence that that the color stigma still exists with its negative perceptions and stereotypes. Furthermore they are not indicative of a few isolated cases. Instead they point to a widespread problem.
When black and white people were asked “who has a better chance of getting ahead in today’s economy?” in a February 2000 CBS poll, 62% of white respondents answered that blacks and whites have an equal chance while only 38% blacks agreed. 57% of black respondents stated that white people had the best chance while 7% of whites felt the same about blacks. Most startling, 0% of blacks gave themselves the advantage while 29% of whites responded that they had the best chance.
Major causes of this “skin-color complex” are:
500 year Historical Perspective:
§ For more than 400 years, black people were victimized in the worst holocaust in human history, in which between 50 to 100 million perished, millions were enslaved, and Portuguese conquerors even established “color hierarchies.” From the 14th century to the 19th century, “expropriation of African labor was the great engine of Europe’s [and America’s] wealth… Over time, Africans’ status in the English colonies of North America shifted… to a highly stigmatized permanent… full-scale lifelong enslavement.”
§ Colonial American legislation decreed black[s] as 3/5 of a person “institutionalizing [them as] part human and part property… as producers of wealth for others.” The inception of “inscribing [this] inferior status began in the 1640s when Virginia courts referred to “black men, women and their children as property.” That state’s “Slave Codes” (1680-1705), which “limited the political rights of free blacks” and South Carolina’s 1670 founding with the establishment of “institutionalized slavery in its charter” further exacerbated the situation. A further deterioration occurred in 1787 following the U.S. Constitutional convention. In anticipation of the 1808 slave importation ban, black women were stripped of control over their own bodies. They were then “regarded as breeders” and often raped or forced into cohabitation with male slaves “to produce more slaves for the owner.” 
§ The American Founding Fathers who often eloquently spoke about freedom and individual liberties, supported slavery, reinforcing the color stigma. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President justified slavery “by asserting the superiority of whites and inferiority of blacks” while at the time of his death, George Washington (1732-1799), the first President “owned 123 slaves, [and] rented 40… [At the same time] his wife’s estate had [held] 153 [slaves].”
§ Gradually from 1660 to 1776 southern “free” blacks “lost the right to vote, to join militias, to hire white [laborers], and to testify in court” until they also “carried the stigma of the enslaved,” a stigma which ultimately became associated with color and race. As a result “it was difficult for them to obtain property, education, [and] jobs.”
§ A century of discrimination followed the American Civil War (1860-1865). The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875 ruling in 1883 that the 14th Amendment did not prohibit individual discrimination. Thirteen years later, that same court ruled in favor of segregation, the basis of Jim Crow laws, declaring that the south’s “separate but equal” concept was constitutional. Before long, southern blacks were barred from voting, deprived of a quality education (leading to greater socioeconomic disadvantages), from testifying in court cases involving non-black parties, and even from quitting their jobs. One Jim Crow law decreed that blacks “could be arrested and imprisoned for breach of contract” if they were “absent from work” or quit their jobs.
§ During the post Civil War period up to the culmination of the Civil Rights movement with passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks were also terrorized by white organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to “ensure submission.” During this era, “violence against African Americans actually became worse in some areas than under slavery [with] 4,742 documented lynchings between 1890 and 1960″ and countless undocumented cases.”
§ When comparing mean net worth (the average of everyone’s wealth divided by the number of households) the average black family has less than 17 cents for every dollar the average white family owns.
§ In 2001 the mean value of African American retirement accounts was $12,247 versus the $65,411 figure for whites.
§ “In 2001 only 10% of African Americans owned shares of stock and “for [the] many who did, those shares… were worth very little.” In addition, the mean asset ownership of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, IRAs and other financial securities was $18,082 for African Americans versus $146,567 for whites. At the same time, the average black business owned $3,014 in assets versus the $91,913 figure for the average white-owned business. Furthermore, the average value of African American primary residences compared to those whites was $45,476 versus $141,769.
§ In 2003 the median family income for blacks was approximately $29,250 versus $53,100 for whites.
§ Today, black farmers own less than one million acres of land and blacks continue to suffer from disproportionately high unemployment and poverty. Presently, only 52% of black males are employed. In addition, studies have found that African American workers “are more likely to be in jobs with pay too low to lift a family of four above the poverty line.”
§ With the color stigma deeply ingrained in today’s generation, including African Americans, facts and perceptions “assign human worth and social status, using whites as the paradigm [or standard].” Throughout the world, “society is prejudiced against those with dark skin… [As a result], the desire for lighter skin is nearly universal. [Accordingly] for light-skinned blacks, it simply remains easier to get ahead.” In research conducted by sociologists Veran M. Keith and Cedric Herring (1991), it was found that “compared to light-skinned blacks, those with dark skin had less income and a lower standing [including] in the black community.” In addition, a 1990 study by sociologists Michael Hughes and Bradley Hertel found that for every dollar earned by a light-skinned black, a dark-skinned black earned only 72 cents. Taken together, both studies demonstrate that “those who are light-skinned have a better chance at succeeding in politics and business, achieving a higher education, and gaining social status than those who are dark.” This is clearly evident in the film, music, and performing arts industries, in which the top stars, especially among women, when it comes to African Americans, are overwhelmingly light-skinned. Media coverage and the advertising industry further reinforce the “white paradigm” with their absence of stories and portfolios featuring dark-skinned blacks. Tragically dark-skinned blacks receive the most exposure only when it comes to sports and criminal justice stories.
§ Research by sociologist Ozzie Edwards indicates that dark-skinned blacks are significantly more likely to report being victims of race discrimination. This is not surprising due to the low self-esteem that plagues them, which are reinforced by today’s social structures (e.g. dark-skinned blacks have been confined to projects, slums, and other poor neighborhoods, been incarcerated, and/or lived existences of un-or-underemployment in disportionate numbers). Therefore, even when not the victims of overt racial discrimination, they still perceive themselves as victims, magnifying feelings of hopelessness and despair (e.g. when a dark-skinned black was turned down for a supervisory role at a major security firm in 2006, he reasoned, “they wanted a white supervisor” when unbeknownst to him, another dark-skinned candidate was selected) as echoed by the despondent high school junior above.
§ The color stigma impacts dark women especially hard. According to the authors of “The Color Complex,” “[a] dark-skinned black man can use his intelligence to compensate for his ‘unfortunate coloring,’ and if he is financially secure, he may marry a light-skinned woman, thereby improving his own social position and that of his children. [At the same time] a dark-skinned black woman who feels herself unattractive… may think that she has nothing to offer society no matter how intelligent or inventive she is.” Accordingly sales of skin-bleaching products such as Nadinola, Ambi Fade Creme, Esoterica, etc. exceed $50 million per year and some black women even opt for costly plastic surgery to lighten their complexions.
§ Hair is another issue for black women. Many continue to “straighten” their hair, utilize products to enhance hair growth, and use weaves and wigs to “improve” their looks per to mimic the white “straight hair” standard. Sadly, per psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs, “every American black girl experiences some degree of shame about her appearance”
§ Worst of all, the misconception still exists that “dark-skinned blacks, especially men, are [the most] criminally dangerous.” Statistics clearly portray the disproportionate number of black inmates held in U.S. prisons without dwelling on the implicit factors that may contribute (e.g. blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites for like-kind infractions due to illegal profiling, misconceptions, lack of connections to ranking individuals, and low net worth (e.g. they have to settle for lower quality legal representation, a vehicle may not be inspected as required by law, etc. due to a lack of funds).
When historical, economic and social contexts are viewed separately and in conjunction with each other, skin color remains a stigma, despite advances made over the last hundred years – end of slavery, success of the Civil Rights movement and implementation of affirmative action to redress past ills, especially in the education (in 1990 1 out of every 8 college students was black versus the 1 out of every 20 figure in 1964) and employment sectors (from 1970 to 2000, the number of black doctors doubled and number of black lawyers and engineers tripled). With affirmative action currently under attack, the negative relationship between skin color and self-esteem (the darker the skin, the lower the self-esteem) and continued racial discrimination and perceptions of such discrimination, feelings of low self-worth and inferiority remain deeply ingrained in African American society, adversely impacting the psyche, freedom, and ultimately the true potential of blacks per se. In fact, it remains so bad in some sectors that sociologists view black relationships in four contexts: Cash Connection (in which mothers tell their daughters to look for someone who can “take care of them” in lieu of love), Flesh Connection (the pursuit of sex for self-gratification without regard to love and potential consequences such as unexpected pregnancies and contraction of sexually-transmitted diseases), Force Connection (acts of domination by one partner, predominantly the male, to subvert the other, usually the female), and Dependency Connection (the “logical and inevitable result of others,” in which a woman is “transformed into a commodity, reduced to parts of her body and physically or ideologically” molded into a compliant state to such a degree that she loses her independence and even remains in a bad relationship filled with threats, violence and infidelity). At the same time, black society also discourages social advancement through criticism and stereotyping – “…we have continued to pass judgment on each other… it is not fair to criticize black people – ‘they are trying to be white’ – who want to move out of rural, urban or ghetto areas for the betterment of their personal future… to provide a better life for their children… whose vocabulary lacks certain slang [and who work] hard [and] take advantage of education,” Shavon Reed wrote in “Defining Blacks.” Not surprisingly, when viewed through this prism, only 48% of blacks indicated that there had been progress in ending discrimination since the success of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, according to a 2000 New York Times Poll.
Therefore, in conclusion, even though discrimination is illegal and 21st century American society likes to say and believe that it is “color-blind,” in which all people share equal opportunities and freedoms, such an idealistic, utopian society remains a myth. The color stigma remains, tenaciously clinging to all facets of daily American life, despite great strides such as affirmative action and increased black net worth, home ownership (the greatest example being Queens, NY where according to the October 1, 2006 edition of The New York Times, black income surpassed that of whites by almost $1000 per year) and participation in the workplace, from 1965 to 2006. As a result, progress remains to be made and will only be achieved when a color-blind society is established in which no one feels the desire to surrender and give up, and all can truly know and believe they are beautiful and can accomplish anything if they work hard, embrace every educational opportunity, and pursue their dreams, regardless if their skin is light or dark.
Each person is born beautiful, each has the chance to make the world a better place depending on personal choices and actions, and most importantly, each is unique and thus without their dark or light skin or any other difference for that matter, the planet we live on would be a worse place. In short love yourself and who you are and be proud of everything you are, even if you have dark skin. Only then can the tentacles of the color stigma be pried away and cutoff.
 Joseph Lelyveld. How Race Is Lived In America. (Times Books: New York. 2001) 372.
 Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson. The Color of Wealth. (The New Press: New York. 2006) 78.
 Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson. The Color of Wealth. (The New Press: New York. 2006) 73-74, 79, 83.
 Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson. The Color of Wealth. (The New Press: New York. 2006) 80.
 Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson. The Color of Wealth. (The New Press: New York. 2006) 82.
 Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson. The Color of Wealth. (The New Press: New York. 2006) 84.
 Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson. The Color of Wealth. (The New Press: New York. 2006) 87.
 Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson. The Color of Wealth. (The New Press: New York. 2006) 77.
 Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, and Rebecca Adamson. The Color of Wealth. (The New Press: New York. 2006) 120.
 Maulana Karenga. Introduction to Black Studies. (University of Sankore Press: Los Angeles, CA. 2002) 306.
 Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall. The Color Complex. (Anchor Books: New York. 1993) 37, 41-42.
 Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall. The Color Complex. (Anchor Books: New York. 1993) 41-42.
 Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall. The Color Complex. (Anchor Books: New York. 1993) 43.
 Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall. The Color Complex. (Anchor Books: New York. 1993) 38.
 Maulana Karenga. Introduction to Black Studies. (University of Sankore Press: Los Angeles, CA. 2002) 335-337.
 Shavon Reed. Defining Blacks. Ezine Articles. 02 August 2006. 6 October 2006. http://ezinearticles.com/?Defining-Blacks&id=258740
 Joseph Lelyveld. How Race Is Lived In America. (Times Books: New York. 2001) 372.
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