Why Affirmative Action Isn’t Sufficient to Counter Racial Bias

The last few years have seen emotional conversations about race in America, including the role of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Despite the important issues these conversations have raised, we may not be paying enough attention to how variations in skin tone and other physical features affect different degrees of bias even within racial groups, according to Keith Maddox and Jennifer Perry.

In an article for Policy Insights from the Behavioral Sciences, the researchers summarize studies showing that people with physical traits more stereotypically associated with a non-White racial group experience more bias and negative treatment than others who identify as having the same racial background. For example, many studies show that Black or African-American individuals with darker skin are perceived more negatively than those with lighter skin. This problem can’t be addressed effectively with many current anti-racism efforts, such as standard affirmative action policies, the researchers write; they require all of us to be far more aware of bias and thoughtful about counteracting it.

Maddox and Perry list a disturbing number of examples of how people with more stereotypically “Black” phenotypes (appearance characteristics) experience more bias. The list includes, but is not limited to, these findings:

  • When dark- and light-skinned Black candidates were compared for a job, the darker skinned candidates were less likely to be recommended even when they were equally qualified;
  • Research participants incorrectly recalled Black faces as lighter after seeing the word “educated” for a split second and darker after briefly seeing the words “ignorant” or “athletic;”
  • Female students with darker skin tones were more likely to be suspended from school;
  • Police officers asked to identify faces of criminals were more likely to incorrectly identify men with “highly stereotypic Black faces” than African-American men with lighter skin tones or “non-Black” features;
  • Research participants were more likely to falsely remember the perpetrators of “stereotypically Black crimes (e.g., robberies, drive-by shootings)” as darker-skinned compared with those accused of “stereotypically White crimes (e.g. Internet hacking, serial killing)” – especially when the victim was white or female; and
  • Inmates (Black or White) with “Afrocentric features” received harsher criminal sentences.


While much of the research has focused on skin tone, similar findings have emerged when researchers have examined other features like hair texture and nose structure. Maddox and Perry caution that most of the research to date has focused on Black males, but the limited studies on other populations suggest that similar experiences may occur for other ethnic and racial groups, too.

The authors believe that these perceptions based on physical appearance are important to understand along with individuals’ own racial identities, especially because, in coming years, “more people in the United States will not fit easily into traditional racial categories.” As a result, they believe, people may rely more on physical appearance and racial phenotype than on race categories per se. If that is the case, efforts to promote equality across race will be insufficient if they rely on personal racial identity or checking off a box when a form asks, “what is your race?” The authors speculate that traditional affirmative action policies seeking to increase representation of minorities could fail to help those most affected by bias.

The alternative they suggest is to increase anti-bias education, including heightened awareness of the tendency for darker skin tone and other stereotypical phenotypes to be associated with more negative traits. They also recommend being more thoughtful and intentional about how people of color are depicted in classrooms and other settings: “For example, a classroom filled with images of lighter skinned Black scholars and darker skinned Black athletes feeds into the status quo.” The nuances their research brings up can feel complex and overwhelming, but educating people about the nature of bias and the ways we tend to perpetrate it can encourage a habit of examining assumptions and countering stereotypes, no matter the situation or the appearance of those involved.

Drawn from “Racial Appearance Bias: Improving Evidence-Based Policies to Address Racial Disparities” by Keith Maddox and Jennifer M. Perry in Policy Insights from the Behavioral Sciences.