A Test That Sun Exposure does not affect Latin America’s “Pigmentocracy” as Measured by the PERLA Color Palette

La Paleta de Colores

The PERLA color palette was used to collect a reliable measure of skin pigmentation, which compliments self-identified data on race and ethnicity and enables within-country and cross-country comparisons.

When presenting data showing how darker skin color is correlated with lower education and other measures of socioconomic status (see presentations posted on this website and Telles and Steele 2012), the audience is generally convinced of Latin America’s “pigmentocracy” but, with good reason, an occassional skeptic will raise the issue that persons of low status tend to be more exposed to the sun and thus they tanned because they are more likely to be engaged in outdoor occupations. Thus, their argument goes, we find that low status persons have darker skin simply because such persons are in jobs where they darkened from exposure to the sun and not society may have dealt out lower status occupations or lower education to persons who had darker skin originally.  We generally respond that even tanning has its limits to how much darker you can get and that the opposite does not occur-that dark skin persons  lighten as a result of working in high status occupations.

However, to take this criticism head on, we analyzed the relation between skin color and education for indoor workers only, as compared to analysis of the full sample of respondents. Using the 2010 America’s Barometer (with the ethnicity module), we replicated Telles and Steele 2012 but for indoor workers only, in which our sample is of eight countries (Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Guatemala) where we have a full set of controls. We perform a multivariate econometric analysis to control confounding variables, including including parental occupation, sex, age, urban and country.  We define indoor workers as persons employed as professionals, intellectuals and scientists; directors (managers and heads of departments); technicians or mid level professionals; public officials; and office workers (secretary, office equipment operators). Of the 14,747 persons in the full sample, we have 2,087 office workers in the eight countries.

Table 1 below shows our results for office workers compared to the full sample using two models. THe first model presents main effects and the second model presents main effects and interactions with skin color in each country as was done in Telles and Steele 2012. The results for the full sample are the same as those reported in Telles and Steele 2012.

Skin color continues to be negatively correlated with education at a high level of significance, although the magnitude is slightly reduced. See table summarizing results.

There are no educational differences between males and females in indoor occupations while there were in the full sample.
Among indoor workers, parental occupation is less important than in the full sample.
Skin color is not especially important in Bolivia and Guatemala, as it was in the full sample though it appears to be especially important for office workers in Colombia and Peru.

Sun exposure increases skin color inequality in Latin America somewhat but it does not account for the bulk of color inequality. Pigmentocracy clearly persists in Latin America, despite the effects of tanning in low status occupations.

Telles, Edward and Liza Steele. Pigmentocracy in the Americas: How is Educational Attainment Related to Skin Color?” Insights 73. Latin American Public Opinion Project, Vanderbilt University: