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How does darker skin color affect Latinos' lives?

A majority of Latinos say darker skin leads to more discrimination, a Pew Research Center survey found, with skin color shaping their daily life experiences a lot.

Majorities of Latinos say discrimination is worse and getting ahead is harder for Hispanics with darker skin, but about 80 percent see themselves as having lighter skin, a Pew Research Center poll found.

Latinos responding to the Pew survey released Thursday said skin color affects their lives, with 62 percent saying having darker skin hurts Hispanics’ ability to get ahead at least a little. Fifty-nine percent said getting ahead is easier for Latinos with lighter skin color.

The survey respondents tended to pick the lightest shades when they were asked to select one of 10 images of hands, shaded fair to dark, that most resembled their skin color.

One in 4 Latinos chose the four lightest, and the largest share, 28 percent, chose the second-lightest skin color. Fifteen percent chose the darker skin shades, and 3 percent selected the darkest colors. 

Fifty-seven percent of Hispanics said skin color shapes their daily life experiences a lot, while more than half said it affects them regardless of their perceived skin color.

Hispanics may experience racism because of their ethnicity, but the degree to which it may occur can be based on the color of their skin. Colorism has a deep history in Latin America and the U.S.

It recently gained renewed attention amid the backlash over the lack of a dark-skinned Latino main character in the film “In the Heights,” and the murder of George Floyd focused attention on Latinos’ own anti-Black racism.

The survey of 3,375 U.S. Latinos conducted March 15 to March 28 attempted to measure colorism, a term used to define discrimination based on color of skin, as opposed to racism, based on membership in a racial or ethnic group. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

“Regardless of their skin color, Latinos are very aware of colorism in their community and how having darker skin color can hurt their chances to get ahead in life and, in the opposite way, how having lighter skin can help them get ahead,” said Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, lead author of the Pew report on the survey.

Discrimination — and darker skin

A little over half (54 percent) of Hispanics surveyed said they had experienced at least one of eight forms of discrimination presented to them in the poll, including from other Latinos.

But nearly two-thirds of respondents with darker skin said they had experienced at least one of these forms of discrimination.

The types of discrimination and the overall share of Hispanics who said they experienced them were: Police acted as if you were not smart, 35 percent; experienced discrimination by someone who is non-Hispanic, 31 percent; experienced discrimination by someone who is Hispanic, 27 percent; criticized for speaking Spanish, 21 percent; told to go back to your country, 21 percent; feared for personal safety, 21 percent; called offensive names, 20 percent; unfairly stopped by police, 9 percent. 

Percentages for each form of discrimination were higher for people with darker skin. For example, while a quarter of light-skinned Latinos said they experienced discrimination by someone who is Hispanic, 41 percent of dark-skinned Latinos said they experienced discrimination from other Latinos. 

The biggest gap on colorism is partisan. Republican Latinos were the only demographic in which a majority of Latinos said skin color does not affect their lives much or at all.

On the other hand, nearly 7 in 10 Latinos who identify as Democrat said skin color shapes their lives a lot or some.

About 3 in 10 Hispanics said someone expressed support for them because of their Latino background.

Latinos answer: How would people describe them on the street?

The survey’s respondents were divided on whether the issue of race gets too much or too little attention or the right amount. But about half, 51 percent, agreed that too little attention is paid to racial issues concerning Hispanics.

Pew also provided other methods for Latinos to identify themselves. About 58 percent identified as white when asked about their race and identity in the way the census did in its 2010 survey.

When asked how others would describe them if they passed them walking on the street, 70 percent of Latinos said most people would describe them as Hispanic. The percentage dropped slightly with later generations and rose to 75 percent among foreign-born Latinos. Fewer than 2 in 10 Latinos said they'd be seen as white.

Asked to describe their race or origin in an open-ended question, 28 percent said Hispanic, Latino or Latinx, and a similar share linked their origin to the country or region of their ancestry, Pew found.

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