Majorities of U.S. Latinos say that skin color shapes experiences and opportunities for Latinos in this country, according to a new report that shows the continued impact of colorism.

About six in 10 U.S. Latino adults (62%) surveyed by the Pew Research Center in March said having a darker skin color hurts Latinos’ ability to get ahead, while nearly the same proportion (59%) said lighter skin color aids Latinos’ ability to advance.

Researchers also asked the 3,375 respondents about incidents of discrimination, including people acting like they were not smart, experiencing discrimination from a non-Hispanic person, experiencing discrimination from a Hispanic person, being criticized for speaking Spanish, being told to go back to their country, fearing for their personal safety, being called offensive names, and being unfairly stopped by police.

Respondents who self-identified their skin color as darker were more likely than those with lighter skin color to say they had experienced at least one discrimination incident (64% vs. 54%), as well as more likely to report experiencing each of the eight discrimination incidents.

Some 57% reported that skin color “shapes their daily life experiences” to some extent, and 48% called discrimination based on race or skin color “a very big problem” in the United States.

Though many respondents believed skin color factored into Latinos’ opportunities in the U.S., larger shares pointed to the impacts of educational attainment (82% said having a college degree helps Latinos get ahead) and immigration status (78% said living in the U.S. with documentation helps). 

The results shed additional light on colorism, a type of discrimination that favors lighter skin over darker skin, often within the same racial or ethnic group. As Pew explains in the report, colorism can be related to racism but is its own distinct form of discrimination.

“For example, Hispanics in the U.S. may face discrimination because they are Hispanic (a form of racism), but the degree of discrimination may vary based on skin color, with those of darker shades experiencing more incidents (a form of colorism),” the report said. “And because of colorism’s deep roots in the histories of Latin America and the United States, discrimination based on skin color can occur among Hispanics just as much as it can be directed at Hispanics by non-Hispanics.”

Research has drawn links between skin tone and a number of tangible outcomes, including wages, employment outcomes, mental health, educational attainment and school suspensions

“‘From magazines to television shows and movies, fair features have been portrayed as the ideal standard. … What kind of message does that send to young girls?’”

— Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat

One 2018 study by Vanderbilt University economist Joni Hersch, for example, found that documented immigrants with darker skin get paid as much as 25% less than their lighter-skinned counterparts — a growing disparity. Hersch, who controlled for factors such as educational attainment, work experience and proficiency in English, had found a smaller wage penalty when she interviewed the same immigrants four years earlier.

“The changing demographics of the U.S. population indicates that there are more color differences without a clear racial distinction,” Hersch added in a statement. “So I think we’re leading to the opportunity for even more people to make use of their rights under Title VII to file a lawsuit based on color discrimination.”

A separate 2007 study noted that darker-skinned Black people in the U.S. have “lower socioeconomic status, more punitive relationships with the criminal justice system, diminished prestige, and less likelihood of holding elective office” compared to lighter-skinned Black people.

The issue of colorism became a focal point in Hollywood earlier this year with the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” — which, critics charged, lacked representative casting of darker-skinned Afro-Latino actors for a story that centered on New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

In an apology posted to Twitter, Miranda acknowledged that “in trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short.” “I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback,” he wrote.

Colorism is a global phenomenon, including in India, Brazil and many African countries. Meanwhile, a global market for bleach creams and injectables that purport to lighten skin — and which carry many potential health risks — stood at an estimated $8.6 billion in 2020, including $2.3 billion in the U.S. 

While companies that sold skin-whitening products came under scrutiny during 2020’s reawakening to racial injustice, reports suggest many changed their branding and marketing while continuing to sell the same serums and creams.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a progressive Minnesota Democrat, has sought to fight colorism on the legislative front, including through public education on the risks of skin-lightening products and enforcement of bans on illegal imports.

Omar, who is Somali-American, told the New York Times in September that this work originates from her experience as a Black woman growing up in a society that favors lighter skin. “From magazines to television shows and movies, fair features have been portrayed as the ideal standard,” she said. “What kind of message does that send to young girls?”

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