Background: Racial inequality in the U.S. is typically described in terms of stark categorical difference, as compared to the more gradational stratification based on skin color often said to prevail in parts of Latin America. However, nationally representative data with both types of measures have not been available to explicitly test this contrast.
Objective: We use novel, recently released data from the U.S. and 18 Latin American countries to describe household income inequality across the region by perceived skin color and racial self-identification, and examine which measure better captures racial disparities in each national context.
Results: We document color and racial hierarchies across the Americas, revealing some unexpected patterns. White advantage and indigenous disadvantage are fairly consistent features, whereas blacks at times have higher mean incomes than other racial populations. Income inequality can best be understood in some countries using racial categories alone, in others using skin color; in a few countries, including the U.S., a combination of skin color and self-identified race best explains income variation.
Conclusions: These results complicate theoretical debates about U.S. racial exceptionalism and methodological debates about how best to measure race. Rather than supporting one measure over another, our cross-national analysis underscores race‟s multidimensionality. The variation in patterns of inequality also defies common comparisons between the U.S. on the one hand and a singular Latin America on the other.