Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Age-old stereotypes interact in complex ways when new arrivals look for jobs.
When immigrants enter American society, they encounter a web of prejudice blocking their path to success and well-being. A new study examines the effect of two potential strands of this obstruction—race and skin color—on employment among immigrant men and women, and finds surprisingly gendered results.
By analyzing data from the 2003 National Immigrant Survey (which studies documented immigrants), University of Kansas sociologists Andrea Gomez Cervantes and ChangHwan Kim found that darker-skinned male immigrants were less likely to have a job than lighter-skinned ones. (The survey tracked skin color on a scale ranging from 0, the lightest, to 9, the darkest.) For immigrant women, though, skin color didn’t affect their employment outcome as much as race did.
Here’s how the study puts its results, in a (not yet published) working paper:
Indeed, darker skin color lowers the likelihood of employment for male immigrants regardless of their race after controlling for human capital and demographic covariates, while skin color has no meaningful impact for female immigrants when race is controlled for.
The researchers considered a number of factors that might impact employment status, including education and time spent in the U.S. For male immigrants, though, skin color had a significant negative effect on job status even when all else was equal (including race). Darker-skinned men were less likely to have jobs than lighter-skinned men across the immigrant board.
For immigrant women, however, racial categories (and the associated stereotypes) mattered more than skin color. Black and Asian women, the study found, were particularly disadvantaged when it came to employment. But skin color didn’t make a statistical difference across racial groups, or within them, for women.
Cervantes suspects that implicit racial bias might explain some of the findings; for instance, people tend to automatically associate “masculine” traits such as fear, criminality, aggression, and dominance with darker skin tones. For dark-skinned men, that association might impede their job hunt. For women, more explicit racial stereotypes seem to come into play. In a way, being a woman might mediate the perceived hyper-masculine threat associated with darker skin, Cervantes says.
She and her colleagues call for more exploration into how race and gender influence the economic and social lives of America’s rapidly diversifying population. Here’s how they sum up their study’s implications:
Our findings suggest that the color lines are gendered, and that race alone is no longer enough to understand the current stratification system.