Examining Race in Jamaica: How Racial Category and Skin Color Structure Social Inequality

October 12, 2020

Monique D.A. Kelly, MSU Sociology Dean's Research Associate, has published her research challenging long-held assumptions that marginalize race with regards to social inequality in Jamaica.

Her article, entitled "Examining Race in Jamaica: How Racial Catagory and Skin Color Structure Social Inequality" was published in the journal Race and Social Problems.

With more than 90 percent of the population identifying as Black, Jamaica's inequality has long been seen as class - rather than race - based. But Dr. Kelly examined the effects of both race and skin color on two factors in the Anglo-Caribbean country - household amenities and years of schooling. 

The results can change the way race is viewed across Latin America. 

"As an English-speaking, majority Afro-descent society in the Caribbean, the study’s findings add a unique country case for comparison to Latin America and may also speak to other similar contexts in the region," Dr. Kelly wrote. 

Inequality is substantial and widely evident in Jamaica with 20 percent of people living below the poverty line and 10 percent of the population holding 3/5 of the nation's wealth. The national identity of Jamaica is based strongly on the "creolization" - a positive characterization of mixed ethno-racial ancestries. However, "some argue that such ideologies deny black and indigenous identities and cultures by casting the nation as mixed race/homogenous."

In reviewing data from 2014, Dr. Kelly found that by looking beyond the single racial category of "Black" there are significant differences in the way people identified themselves by skin color. And those identifications can "shape a person's access to household amenities and educational attainment." Household amenities were defined as refrigerator, telephone, cell phone, cars, washing machine, microwave oven, computer, televisions or vehicles.

Results showed that in comparison to Blacks, people who self-identified as racially "other" had 48 percent more household amenities. Further, those with darker skin had fewer household amenities than their lighter-skinned counterparts. 

"Ultimately, owning more of these household amenities is a proxy for a better standard of living. Even when accounting for key control variables, such as respondent’s (and mother’s) education as well as racial category, skin color remained significantly associated with household amenities," Dr. Kelly wrote.

With education, Dr. Kelly found that racial categories showed no difference in education however skin color was "negatively and significantly associated with educational attainment." On average, those with lighter skin color received two more years of education than their counterparts with darker skin.

"Overall, blacks and darker-skinned individuals have significantly lower levels of household amenities and years of schooling than their non-black and lighter-skinned Jamaican counterparts, even when accounting for social class background," Dr. Kelly wrote.

Dr. Kelly received her PhD in 2019 from University of California Irvine. Her research broadly focuses on racial and ethnic identities, attitudes, and inequality, as well as on immigration processes connected to those social dynamics. Her current research agenda uses both qualitative and quantitative methods to investigate race, colorism, stratification, and inequality comparatively within the Anglo-Caribbean and the larger black diaspora.