Social Justice Research

, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 72–115 | Cite as

Operationalizing a Conceptual Model of Colorism in Local Policing

  • Henry SmartIIIEmail author


This thought experiment uses agent-based modeling (computational simulation) to demonstrate how colorism might operate within a local policing context. Colorism is the allocation of privilege and disadvantage based on skin color, with a prejudice for lighter skin. Colorism might help to explain some of the racial disparities in the US’ criminal justice system. I use simulated scenarios to explore the plausibility of this notion in the form of two questions: (1) How might colorism function within an organization, and (2) What might occur when managers apply the typical dilemmatic responses to detected colorism? The simulated world consists of three citizen-groups (lights, mediums, and darks), five policy responses to detected colorism, and two policing behaviors (fair and biased). Using NetLogo, one hundred simulations were conducted for each policy response and analyzed using one-way ANOVA and pairwise comparison of means. When the tenets of colorism were applied to a simulated organizational setting, only some of the tenets held true. For instance, those in the middle of the skin color spectrum experienced higher rates of incarceration when aggressive steps were taken to counter colorism, which ran counter to the expectations of the thought experiment. The study identified an opportunity to expand the description of colorism to help describe the plight of those in the middle of the skin color spectrum. The major contributions from this work include a conceptual model that describes the relationship between the distinct levels of colorism, and it progresses the notion of interactive colorism. The study also explored conditional statements that can be converted into hypotheses for future experiments.


Colorism Policing Police Racism Agent-based modeling 


  1. Ackerman, L. S. (1986). Change management: Basics for training. Training and Development Journal, 40(4), 67–68.Google Scholar
  2. Baynes, L. M. (1997). If it’s not black and white anymore, why does darkness cast a longer discriminatory shadow than lightness? An investigation and analysis of the color hierarchy. Denver University Law Review, 75(1), 131.Google Scholar
  3. Blair, I. V., Judd, C. M., & Chapleau, K. M. (2004). The influence of Afrocentric facial features in criminal sentencing. Psychological Science, 15(10), 674–679. Scholar
  4. Blair, I. V., Judd, C. M., Sadler, M. S., & Jenkins, C. (2002). The role of afrocentric features in person perception: Judging by features and categories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(1), 5–25. Scholar
  5. Blay, Y. A. (2011). Skin bleaching and global white supremacy: By way of introduction. Journal of Pan African Studies, 4(4), 4–46.Google Scholar
  6. Bonabeau, E. (2002). Agent-based modeling: Methods and techniques for simulating human systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99(suppl 3), 7280–7287. Scholar
  7. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016). Data retrieval: Labor force statistics. Retrieved May 2, 2018 from
  8. Burke, M., & Embrich, D. G. (2008). Colorism. International encyclopedia of the social sciences, 2, 17–18.Google Scholar
  9. Burton, L. M., Bonilla-Silva, E., Ray, V., Buckelew, R., & Freeman, E. H. (2010). Critical race theories, colorism, and the decade’s research on families of color. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3), 440–459. Scholar
  10. Chin-Quee, D. (1992). Impressions of the light-, medium-, and dark-skinned: A portrait of racial and intraracial stereotypes (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest (Order No. 9316915).Google Scholar
  11. Clark, J., Austin, J., Henry, D. A., & National Institute of Justice (U.S.). (1997). Three strikes and you’re out: A review of state legislation. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.Google Scholar
  12. Conti, N. (2009). A visigoth system: Shame, honor, and police socialization. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 38(3), 409–432. Scholar
  13. Dixon, T. L., & Maddox, K. B. (2005). Skin tone, crime news, and social reality judgments: Priming the stereotype of the dark and dangerous black criminal. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35(8), 1555–1570. Scholar
  14. Douglas, M. (1986). Risk acceptability according to the social sciences. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  15. Dunphy, D. C., & Stace, D. A. (1988). Transformational and coercive strategies for planned organizational change: Beyond the OD model. Organization Studies, 9(3), 317–334. Scholar
  16. Eberhardt, J. L., Davies, P. G., Purdie-Vaughns, V. J., & Johnson, S. L. (2006). Looking Deathworthy: Perceived stereotypicality of black defendants predicts capital-sentencing outcomes. Psychological Science, 17(5), 383–386. Scholar
  17. Eberhardt, J. L., Goff, P. A., Purdie, V. J., & Davies, P. G. (2004). Seeing black: Race, crime, and visual processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(6), 876–893. Scholar
  18. Eckerd, A. (2013). Policy alternatives in adaptive communities: Simulating the environmental justice consequences of hazardous site remediation strategies. Review of Policy Research, 30(3), 281–301. Scholar
  19. Edwards, O. L. (1973). Skin color as a variable in racial attitudes of Black urbanites. Journal of Black Studies, 3(4), 473–483. Scholar
  20. Engel, R. S., Calnon, J. M., & Bernard, T. J. (2002). Theory and racial profiling: Shortcomings and future directions in research. Justice Quarterly, 19(2), 249–273. Scholar
  21. Epp, C. R., Maynard-Moody, S., & Haider-Markel, D. P. (2014). Pulled over: How police stops define race and citizenship. Illinois: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  22. Epstein, J. M., & Axtell, R. (1996). Growing artificial societies: Social science from the bottom up. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.Google Scholar
  23. Federal Bureau of Investigation (2016). 2016 Crime in the United States. Retrieved May 2, 2018 from
  24. Forrester, J. W., & Senge, P. M. (1980). Tests for building confidence in system dynamics models. System Dynamics, TIMS Studies in Management Sciences, 14, 209–228.Google Scholar
  25. Glenn, E. N. (2009). Shades of difference: Why skin color matters. California: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Harris, A. P. (2008). From color line to color chart: Racism and colorism in the new century. Berkeley Journal of African American Law and Policy, 10(1), 52–69. Scholar
  27. Heidelberg, R. L., & Desai, A. (2015). Simulation rules: The role of simulation in policy inquiry. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 37(1), 1–17. Scholar
  28. Helbing, D. (2012). Social self-organization: Agent-based simulations and experiments to study emergent social behavior. Heidelberg: Springer. Scholar
  29. Herring, C. (2002). Bleaching out the color line? Race and Society, 5(1), 17–31. Scholar
  30. Herring, C., Keith, V., & Horton, H. D. (2004). Skin deep: How race and complexion matter in the “color-blind” era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  31. Hill, M. E. (2000). Color differences in the socioeconomic status of African American men: Results of a longitudinal study. Social Forces, 78(4), 1437–1460. Scholar
  32. Hochschild, J. L., & Weaver, V. (2007). The skin color paradox and the American racial order. Social Forces, 86(2), 643–670. Scholar
  33. Hughes, M., & Hertel, B. R. (1990). The significance of color remains: A study of life chances, mate selection, and ethnic consciousness among Black Americans. Social Forces, 68(4), 1105–1120.Google Scholar
  34. Hunter, M. L. (2002). “If you’re light you’re alright”: Light skin color as social capital for women of color. Gender and Society, 16(2), 175–193. Scholar
  35. Hunter, M. L. (2013). The consequences of colorism (2013th ed., pp. 247–256). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  36. Iba, T., Matsuzawa, Y., & Aoyama, N. (2004). From conceptual models to simulation models: ‘Model driven development of agent-based simulations. In 9th Workshop on economics and heterogeneous interacting agents (Vol. 28, p. 149).Google Scholar
  37. Kahn, K. B., & Davies, P. G. (2011). Differentially dangerous? Phenotypic racial stereotypicality increases implicit bias among ingroup and outgroup members. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 14(4), 569–580. Scholar
  38. Kindler, H. S. (1979). Two planning strategies: Incremental change and transformational change. Group and Organization Studies, 4(4), 476–484.Google Scholar
  39. Kravetz, L. D. (2017). Strange contagion: Inside the surprising science of infectious behaviors and viral emotions and what they tell us about ourselves. New York: Harper Collins.Google Scholar
  40. Leitzel, J. (2001). Race and policing. Society, 38(3), 38–42. Scholar
  41. Levitt, B., & March, J. G. (1988). Organizational learning. Annual Review of Sociology, 14(1), 319–338. Scholar
  42. Lupton, D. (1999). Risk (Key Ideas). New York: Rutledge.Google Scholar
  43. Minton, T. D., & Zeng, Z. (2016). Jail inmates in 2015. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.Google Scholar
  44. Norwood, K. J. (2013). Color matters: Skin tone bias and the myth of a postracial America. New York: Routledge. Scholar
  45. Oberfield, Z. W. (2012). Socialization and self-selection: How police officers develop their views about using force. Administration and Society, 44(6), 702–730. Scholar
  46. Olson, J. C. (2016). Race and punishment in American prisons. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 26(4), 758–768. Scholar
  47. Poile, C., & Safayeni, F. (2016). Using computational modeling for building theory: A double edged sword. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation. Scholar
  48. Pratto, F., & Bargh, J. A. (1991). Stereotyping based on apparently individuating information: Trait and global components of sex stereotypes under attention overload. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 27(1), 26–47. Scholar
  49. Risman, B. J. (2004). Gender as a social structure: Theory wrestling with activism. Gender & society, 18(4), 429–450. Scholar
  50. Ronquillo, J., Denson, T. F., Lickel, B., Lu, Z. L., Nandy, A., & Maddox, K. B. (2007). The effects of skin tone on race-related amygdala activity: An fMRI investigation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(1), 39–44. Scholar
  51. Russell, K., Wilson, M., & Hall, R. (2013). The color complex (revised): The politics of skin color in a new millennium. New York: Anchor.Google Scholar
  52. Schelling, T. C. (2006). Micromotives and macrobehavior. New York: WW Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  53. Smart, H. (2018). An Introduction: Colorism and Its Relevance to Public Administration. Manuscript in preparation.Google Scholar
  54. U.S. Census Bureau. (2011). Industry and occupations: Reports and briefs. Retrieved May 2, 2018 from
  55. U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). Disparities in stem employment by sex, race, and hispanic origin. Retrieved May 2, 2018 from
  56. U.S. Census Bureau. (2017). Educational attainment: CPS historical time series table. Retrieved May 2, 2018 from
  57. U.S. Census Bureau-HO. (2017). Table 16: Quarterly homeownership rates by race and ethnicity of householder: 1994 to Present. Retrieved May 2, 2018 from
  58. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2017). Annual homeless assessment report (2017). Retrieved May 2, 2018 from
  59. Van Maanen, J. (1975). Police socialization: A longitudinal examination of job attitudes in an urban police department. Administrative Science Quarterly, 20(2), 207–228. Scholar
  60. Viglione, J., Hannon, L., & DeFina, R. (2011). The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders. The Social Science Journal, 48(1), 250–258. Scholar
  61. Wilder, J. (2008). Everyday colorism in the lives of young Black women: Revisiting the continuing significance of an old phenomenon in a new generation (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved May 2, 2018 from
  62. Wilensky, U., & Rand, W. (2015). An introduction to agent-based modeling: Modeling natural, social, and engineered complex systems with NetLogo. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018
corrected publication 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.John Jay CollegeNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations