LCI Learning

Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter

Share on LinkedIn

Share on Email

Share More

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts

Last week, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, found himself in trouble for once suggesting that US President Barack Obama had a political edge over other African-American candidates because he was "light-skinned" and had "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one". Reid was not expressing sadness but a gleeful opportunism that Americans were still judging one another by the colour of their skin, rather than — as the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy we commemorated on Monday, dreamed — by the content of their character.


The Senate leader's choice of words was flawed, but positing that black candidates who look "less black" have a leg up is hardly more controversial than saying wealthy people have an advantage in elections. Dozens of research studies have shown that skin tone and other racial features play powerful roles in who gets ahead and who does not.


This isn't racism, per se — it's colourism, an unconscious prejudice that isn't focused on a single group like blacks so much as on blackness itself. Take, for instance, two of Eberhadt's murder cases, in Philadelphia, involving black defendants — one light-skinned, the other dark. The lighter-skinned defendant, Arthur Hawthorne, ransacked a drug store for money and narcotics. The pharmacist had complied with every demand, yet Hawthorne shot him when he was lying face down. Hawthorne was independently identified as the killer by multiple witnesses, a family member and an accomplice.


The darker-skinned defendant, Ernest Porter, pleaded not guilty to the murder of a beautician, a crime that he was linked to only through a circuitous chain of evidence. A central witness later said that prosecutors forced him to finger Porter even though he was sure that he was the wrong man. Two people who provided an alibi for Porter were mysteriously never called to testify. During his trial, Porter revealed that the police had even gotten his name wrong — his real name was Theodore Wilson — but the court stuck to the wrong name in the interest of convenience.


Both men were convicted. But the lighter-skinned Hawthorne was given a life sentence, while the dark-skinned Porter has spent more than a quarter-century on Pennsylvania's death row.


Colourism also influenced the 2008 presidential campaign. Political operatives are certainly aware of this dynamic. During the campaign, a conservative group created attack ads linking Obama with Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced former mayor of Detroit, which darkened Kilpatrick's skin to have a more persuasive effect.


In highlighting how Obama benefited from his links to whiteness, Harry Reid punctured the myth that Obama's election signalled the completion of the Rev. King's dream. Americans may like to believe that we are now colour-blind, that we can consciously choose not to use race when making judgments about other people. But this belief rests on a profound misunderstanding about how our minds work and perversely limits our ability to discuss prejudice honestly.


Shankar Vedantam, a Nieman fellow at HarvardUniversity and a reporter for the Washington Post, is the author of the forthcoming book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives


"Loved reading this piece by Raj Kumar Makkad?
Join LAWyersClubIndia's network for daily News Updates, Judgment Summaries, Articles, Forum Threads, Online Law Courses, and MUCH MORE!!"

Tags :

Category Criminal Law, Other Articles by - Raj Kumar Makkad