Looking through the Shades: The Effect of Skin Color on Earnings by Region of Birth and Race for Immigrants to the United States

Statue of Liberty against a blue sky

The proportion of foreign-born Americans, or those with foreign-born parents, continues to grow.

The subgroups of this population are far from uniform, as are the economic outcomes and stability they’ve achieved in the U.S.; while all immigrants have faced some difficulties and hostilities adjusting to their new environment, one must ask whether those who are also ethnic minorities have faced additional discrimination.

This paper aims to determine whether a labor market penalty extends to some members of immigrant groups that are phenotypically different from the white American norm; in other words, the authors explore how the skin shades of immigrants from different global regions link to their resultant wages in America.

Key Findings

  • An immigrant with the darkest skin shade on the scale earns roughly 76 cents for every dollar earned by an immigrant with the lightest skin shade on the New Immigrant Survey (NIS) scale.
  • The previously-documented skin shade penalty in wages for darker skinned immigrants, though, is driven by the large percentage of Latin American immigrants.
  • When immigrants are disaggregated by region of birth and race, skin shade penalties remain significant only for those who were born in Latin America and the Caribbean and for white immigrants.
  • Nonblack Latin American immigrants with the darkest skin shade earn roughly 20 percent less than their lightest counterparts.
  • The effects of colorism, however, are much less pronounced or nonexistent among other racial and national-origin populations.
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