A Punishing Look: Skin Tone and Afrocentric Features in the Halls of Justice

Two related lines of research have gained traction in the social sciences during the past three decades. One examines the association between race and punishment, while a second investigates stratification and colorism, defined as discrimination based on skin tone. Yet rarely do scholars examine these issues together. The current study uses new data to investigate the association between offender’s skin tone, Afrocentric facial features, and criminal punishment. More than 850 booking photos of black and white male offenders in two Minnesota counties were coded and then matched to detailed sentencing records. Results indicate that darker skin tone and Afrocentric facial features are associated with harsher sanctions and that the latter effect is particularly salient for white defendants. The findings add to existing work on skin tone and stratification and suggest that future research should consider other aspects of appearance, such as facial features, in the study of punishment and inequality.

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