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excerpted from:  Shilpi Bhattacharya, The Desire for Whiteness: Can Law and Economics Explain It? , 2 Columbia Journal of Race and Law 117 (2012)(203 Footnotes Omitted)


She's more like a gypsy nor ever," said aunt Pullet, in a pitying tone; "It's very bad luck, sister, as the gell should be so brown; the boy's fair enough. I doubt it'll stand in her way i' life to be so brown. - George Eliot

Aunt Pullet's concern for the future of Maggie Sullivan, the so-called "brown-skinned" heroine of George Eliot's classic novel The Mill on the Floss, was not unfounded. Studies have shown that colorism, the differential treatment of individuals in economic and social transactions based solely on differences in skin color, is pervasive in modern societies. Expressed positively, colorism is a preference for persons of lighter skin; expressed negatively, it is the exclusion, denial, or penalizing of persons of darker skin.

This Article introduces colorism to the law and economics discussion of racism, and considers whether the existing theories of discrimination in law and economics provide an explanation for colorism. This Article finds that existing theories of racism are unable to explain the deep rootedness or persistence of colorism. Yet these theories allow for a better understanding of the complexities of colorism and its relationship to racism. More importantly, the insights provided by the application of these theories are useful in locating the role of law in addressing colorism.

Colorism is intuitively linked to racism because skin color has dominated our understanding of racial classifications. In societies that are racially heterogeneous such as the United States, skin color preferences may be more commonly tagged as racism, whereas similar preferences may be classified as colorism in societies that are racially uniform. Can the same behavior constitute racism in one society and colorism in another? Comparing racially homogenous and heterogeneous societies such as India and the United States, respectively, can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the source and existence of colorism and its distinction from racism. This Article undertakes such a comparative study by examining the prevalence of colorism in the United States employment market and the Indian "arranged marriage market." This provides the opportunity to study colorism in the public and private spheres in different cultural contexts. In this way, the economic theories of racism are truly challenged in their application to such completely contrasting circumstances, and in the process, their strengths and weaknesses are better exposed.

Colorism is expressed in many nations as a desire for whiteness. Why do people of nearly all races have a desire for whiteness? The answer will enable a better understanding of how law can address colorism.

This Article examines three existing economic theories of racism. Gary Becker introduced the first economic theory based on taste for discrimination. Second is the theory of statistical discrimination. Statistical discrimination occurs when generally held beliefs about average group characteristics are used to make assumptions about the behavior of individual members of the group. The third and most recent account of racial discrimination is Richard McAdams's status production theory. Race discrimination by this account is "a means by which people who share roughly similar but observable traits that come to be known as "race" produce social status for themselves." The commonality of these theories is that they rely on the visibility of skin color and the ease with which skin color allows us to make racial classifications.

This Article is divided into six parts.

Part I argues that the existence of colorism is established through the prevalence and pervasiveness of whiteness as a privilege in society. Part II examines whether it is possible to distinguish between colorism and racism. Part III studies some aspects of the history of colorism in India. Part IV examines the economic theories of racism and attempts to relate them to colorism. Part V discusses the law on colorism in India. Part VI puts forward a conclusion.

Assistant Professor of Law, O.P. Jindal Global University, Delhi, India. B.A., LL.B. (Honors), The WB National University of Juridical Sciences; LL.M. University of Virginia School of Law.