The Effects of Skin Color in the Americas

Here is an excerpt from the full article published as a Web Exclusive on America’s Quarterly:

To what extent are years of schooling related to skin color? Do color/racial inequalities, if they exist, occur independently of social class?

Our research shows that the lightest persons generally have the highest mean educational attainment with the darkest persons having the lowest. [See figure] Thus, nearly all countries in the Americas can be described as pigmentocracies.

The most pronounced pigmentocracies are Guatemala and Bolivia, which seem to reflect the low status of their especially large Indigenous populations. However, we do not find the pigmentocratic relation in five countries. In Panama, and to a lesser extent in Costa Rica and Honduras, we discover a U-shaped relation between skin color and education. Our findings also reveal the lack of a pigmentocracy in Belize and Guyana.

Relation between skin color and educational attainment in Latin America and the Caribbean

The statistical analysis shows that inequalities by skin color are not merely results of historical processes; rather, they occur independently of class origins (measured by parental occupation). This suggests that racial differences also are being reproduced in the current generation.

These findings on the importance of race run against much of the traditional thinking about social stratification south of the U.S. border. Race has been surprisingly ignored by many leading social scientists in the region, in favor of class-based explanations. However, because of their theoretical prisms or because of the unavailability of race data, analysts have rarely empirically tested whether race—especially skin color—is related to socioeconomic status in the region.

Not that class is unimportant. Race and class operate together to shape stratification in the Americas, though the effect of race has been underestimated. In addition, it is important to note that class origins are the result of accumulated racial privileges and disadvantages acquired in the past, including through formal institutions such as casta systems, slavery and other forced labor systems that Indigenous people, Afro-Latinos and mixed-race people were regularly subjected to, as well as through informal racial discrimination.