The color of death: race, observed skin tone, and all-cause mortality in the United States

Quincy Thomas Stewart*, Ryon J. Cobb, Verna M. Keith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Objective: This paper examines how mortality covaries with observed skin tone among blacks and in relation to whites. Additionally, the study analyzes the extent to which social factors such as socioeconomic status affect this relationship. Design: This study uses data from the 1982 General Social Survey (N = 1,689) data linked to the National Death Index until 2008. We use this data to examine the links between race, observed skin tone among blacks, and all-cause mortality. Piecewise exponential hazard modeling was used to estimate disparities in skin tone mortality among blacks, and relative to whites. The multivariate models control for age, education, gender, region, metropolitan statistical area, marital status, labor force status, and household income. Results: Observed skin tone is a significant determinant of mortality among blacks and in relation to whites. Light skinned blacks had the lowest mortality hazards among blacks, while respondents with medium and dark brown skin experienced significantly higher mortality. The observed skin tone mortality disparities covaried with education; there are significant mortality disparities across observed skin tone groups among black respondents with high school or more education, and nonsignificant disparities among those with less education. Conclusion: It is crucial to identify the social processes driving racial disparities in health and mortality. The findings reveal that the nuanced social experiences of blacks with different observed skin tones markedly change the experience of racial inequality. Research on the nuanced social processes and biological mechanisms that connect differences in observed skin tone to mortality outcomes promises to better illuminate the experience of racial inequality and policy mechanisms we can use to undermine it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1018-1040
Number of pages23
JournalEthnicity and Health
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 2 2020


  • Race
  • health disparities
  • mortality
  • skin tone

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Cultural Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'The color of death: race, observed skin tone, and all-cause mortality in the United States'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this