Vesla Weaver leans across her desk and points to a graph on her computer screen. There are three bars. Each represents a different skin color of African Americans; the bars’ height shows the education and income levels for each statistical group. The chart is one of many, but each one shows the same thing: As skin color lightens, the levels of education and income rise.
“We started out with the question of why darker skin blacks were doing less well on most measures of socioeconomic status than light-skinned blacks,” she says, settling back into her chair. “And that has broadened into a question about multiracialism, immigration and skin color, and what those three different forces are doing to the American racial order.”
Vesla Weaver enjoys researching “messy, controversial” subjects like mass incarceration, crime policy and racial bias. “I think I’m just drawn to that,” she says.
Weaver, a U.S. politics professor who received her bachelor’s degree from UVA, is knee-deep in work for a book that she is writing with Harvard Professor Jennifer Hochschild and Northwestern Professor Traci Burch that looks at these three social forces and the role of skin color in politics. She acknowledges this type of work walks straight through the mine field that is race in America.
“Even in presenting this research, sometimes black political scientists don’t like it,” she says. “It’s kind of seen as airing dirty laundry. ‘We don’t want to exhibit differences within our community, lest that diminish our potential power,’ which is a real concern.”
Weaver is currently looking at how people react to political candidates based on the candidates’ skin color [pdf]. “I tend to be fascinated with things at the extreme,” she says. “My other area of research is on mass incarceration and crime policy in the U.S. Again, messy, controversial. I think I’m just drawn to that.”
Weaver created fictional flyers for four candidates, two white, a light-skinned black and a dark-skinned black. To do this, she morphed three separate pictures of actual people (one of them Virgil Goode), so that each candidate shares the physical characteristics of two common people. “They would be like even more than brothers,” she says. Then she had the fake candidates do what candidates do—campaign.
Over the Internet, almost 3,000 people responded to questions about which candidate they found more intelligent, more experienced, more trustworthy and more hardworking. All other data, such as the campaign literature on the flyer, was randomized, so that the only variation was skin color.
The first results weren’t surprising: Both black candidates didn’t fare well against the white candidates. Then came a wrinkle. The light-skinned black candidate was actually less popular than the dark-skinned black.
“In this case, you’ve got what’s called the ‘norm of racial equality.’” Weaver says. “You see a white candidate and the black candidate and you say, ‘There’s not much difference between these people. I’m being asked about race.’ There’s a high incentive to self-monitor.”
But the next result was an anomaly Weaver couldn’t immediately explain. When the light-skinned black candidate ran against the dark-skinned black, he did overwhelmingly better. Without a white candidate, the respondent’s self-monitoring was shut down, says Weaver. Race was not a conscious consideration.
“In the U.S.,” she says, “there is no such thing as a norm of skin-color equality between two black candidates.”
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