Coloring in the Gaps of Title VI Clarifying the Protections Against the Skin-Color Caste System
Citation: 107 Geo L.J. (2019)
In its April 2018 issue, National Geographic featured a pair of biracial twins on its cover with diametrically opposite traits: Millie with dark skin, black hair, and brown eyes, and Marcia, with pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. The coverage of this pair raised a perplexing question: what does it mean when two people of the same race could be treated and seen differently? What happens when skin color—traditionally used as a proxy for race—becomes an independent basis for categorizing and treating Marcia and Millie? What happens when race is no longer a “perfect” schema by which we can classify, understand, and presume?
The answer to these questions has always been in the background: color. “Colorism”—the act of discriminating against a person due to differences in skin color—has been used to advance and oppress individuals for centuries, but has been masked by conversations of race. Colorism is the reason why the film Black Panther garnered high acclaim for shattering norms and showcasing dark- skinned Black women, and the purported reason why sisters Beyoncé and Solange Knowles have been so successful . . . This Note’s colorism discussion focuses on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) because of the breadth of entities and programs the statute influences. Interestingly, legal scholars have yet to discuss colorism claims under Title VI, instead focusing their energy on other civil rights statutes. Unlike its sister provisions, Title VI affects a wide range of entities. Title VI prevents people from being discriminated against on the grounds of race, color, or national origin by “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” which includes state departments of public safety, colleges, boards of education, medical centers, and private corporations.
This Note serves as an introduction to this burgeoning Title VI color discrimination doctrine and provides an analysis of the litigation trends that perpetuate the cycle discussed above. Part I dives into colorism’s past and present to demonstrate that colorism has long been a problem that must be resolved. Part II pro-vides an overview of observations from current Title VI color discrimination case law. Lastly, Part III provides recommendations for how courts, plaintiffs, and civil rights lawyers can establish and expand this important body of law.