Panel Paper: Race, Skin Tone, and Police Contact Among Contemporary Teens

Friday, November 9, 2018
Coolidge - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Amanda Geller, New York University and Ellis Monk, Princeton University

Recent high-profile incidents of police violence and misconduct have brought widespread attention to long-standing tensions between police departments and the communities they serve. Policy shifts over the past 20 years have led to the broad adoption of “proactive” investigative stops, citations, and arrests to detect and disrupt low-level disorder or other circumstances interpreted as indicia that crime is afoot. However, these encounters are often aggressive, rarely uncover illegal activity, and in many cities are characterized by stark racial disparities. Such experiences threaten the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities targeted and stand to undermine any public safety benefits associated with investments in policing.

A growing literature suggests that experiences with the police may vary not only by race, but by complexion. Black Americans have faced skin tone discrimination, in which darker-skinned men and women are disadvantaged relative to their lighter-skinned counterparts, dating as far back as slavery. Recent research finds that skin tone gradients have persisted into the 21st century, in domains including educational attainment, household income, occupational status, and several criminal justice outcomes. However, what is currently known about skin tone disparities in police practices is limited. Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health (AdHealth) indicates that dark-skinned black and Latino respondents are stopped and arrested more often than their lighter-skinned counterparts; however, AdHealth respondents came of age before the rise of proactive policing and provide little information about the nature of their encounters with the police.

This paper examines skin tone disparities in police contact among a population-based sample of over 1,000 contemporary urban teens. Data are drawn from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal birth cohort study of nearly 5,000 families with children born between 1998 and 2000. The most recent survey, collected when the focal children were approximately 15 years old, included an extensive battery of questions about the teens’ experiences with the police. For over 1,000 of the teens, this wave also included an in-home survey in which the interviewer reported the teens’ skin tone, coded according to the New Immigrant Survey skin tone scale.

Preliminary descriptive analyses reveal stark racial disparities in police contact, and a nearly monotonic increase with skin tone darkness in the probability that adolescents report having been stopped by the police. Race-specific regression analyses indicate that this skin-tone gradient in police contact is observed within the subsample of black respondents, the subsample of Hispanic respondents, and the subsample of “other race” (not white, black, or Hispanic) respondents, but not among white teens or those reporting multiracial backgrounds.

Subsequent analyses will examine the extent to which observed skin-tone disparities are explained by differences in adolescent behavior or social context, and the extent of skin-tone disparities in the nature of, as well as the prevalence of, police contact. To the extent that these disparities are robust, our findings have the potential to inform police policies and practices related to implicit bias and equitable policing more broadly.