2004-04-12 18:04:01 UTC
By BILL MAXWELL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 31, 2003
the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission receives about 85,000
a phenomenon to be expected in
a society that touts itself as a
Many of these cases involve the
omplaints of minority groups
against majority groups.
We rarely expect a member of a
minority group to discriminate
against someone else in the same
But that is exactly what
happens among African-Americans.
More than any other minority
group in the United States,
blacks discriminate against
The discrimination, called "colorism,"
is based on skin tone:
whether a person is dark-skinned
or light-skinned or in the broad
Most African-Americans refuse to
discuss this self-destructive problem
even in private.
According to the EEOC, though,
the number of such cases are steadily
increasing, jumping from 413 in fiscal
year 1994 to 1,382 in 2002,
a figure that represents about
3 percent of all cases the
agency receives yearly.
The most recent case making news
in the black press involves two
employees of an Applebee's restaurant
in Jonesboro, Ga., near Atlanta.
There, Dwight Burch, a dark-skinned waiter,
who has left the restaurant, filed a
lawsuit against Applebee's and his
light-skinned African-American manager.
In the suit,
Burch alleged that during
his three-month stint,
the manager repeatedly referred to
him as a "black monkey" and a "tar baby."
The manager also told Burch to bleach his skin,
and Burch was fired after he refused to do so,
the suit states.
Colorism has a long and ugly
history among American blacks,
dating back to slavery,
when light-skinned blacks were
automatically given preferential
treatment by plantation owners
and their henchmen.
Colorism's history is fascinating:
Fair-skinned slaves automatically
enjoyed plum jobs in the master's
house, if they had to work at all.
Many traveled throughout the nation
and abroad with their masters and
They were exposed to the finer things,
and many became educated as a result.
Their darker-tone peers toiled in the fields.
They were the ones who were
beaten, burned and hanged,
the ones permanently condemned
to be the lowest of the low in
For them, even learning -
reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic -
When slavery ended,
light-skinned blacks established
social organizations that barred
Elite blacks of the early 20th century
were fair-skinned almost to the person.
most blacks in high positions
have fair skin tones, and most
blacks who do menial jobs or
are in prison are dark.
Believe it or not,
popular black magazines,
such as Ebony as Essence,
prefer light-skinned models
in their beauty product ads.
For many years, entrance to
special social events operated
on the "brown paper bag" principle,
which I will explain.
Until quite recently,
black fraternities and sororities,
for example, recruited according to
Spike Lee's film School Daze satirizes
the problem, and Alice Walker's novel
The Color Purple makes it a biting subtext.
In his 1996 book The Future of the Race,
Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the
Afro-American studies department at Harvard,
described his encounter with the brown
paper bag when he came to Yale in the
when skin-tone bias was brazenly practiced:
"Some of the brothers who came from
New Orleans held a "bag party.'
As a classmate explained it to me,
a bag party was a New Orleans custom
wherein a brown paper bag was stuck
on the door.
"Anyone darker than the
bag was denied entrance.
That was one cultural legacy that
would be put to rest in a hurry -
we all made sure of that.
But in a manner of speaking,
it was replaced by an opposite
test whereby those who were deemed
"not black enough' ideologically
were to be shunned.
I was not sure this was an improvement."
Gates was overly optimistic.
The brown paper bag test remains
in black culture in various incarnations,
as the Applebee's case and the EEOC's
We separate ourselves by skin tone
almost as much as we ever did.
you check out the "desired"
female beauties in rap videos,
you will find redbones galore.
Back to the Applebee's case.
A spokesman for the chain
issued this statement:
"No one should have to put up
with mean and humiliating comments
about the color of their skin on the job. . . .
It makes no difference that these
comments are made by someone of your
Actually, that makes it even worse."
Although the chain denied the allegations,
it paid Burch $40,000 to settle the suit.
Now for the irony of ironies:
Applebee's has added a protection,
along with cultural sensitivity training,
against skin-tone discrimination to its
In other words, the company must
protect African-Americans from
Discrimination from whites and
other groups remains a big problem
But colorism is just as serious,
if not more so. Colorism saps our
strength from the inside.
It weakens our power and ability to
fight the outside forces that keep
us marginalized in larger society.
The Tamiami Trail was misidentified
as Alligator Alley in Bill Maxwell's Aug. 27 column.