As a result of Barack Obama's groundbreaking candidacy, American attitudes about skin color have been put under a microscope this year. Michigan State University Social Work Professor Ronald Hall had a jump-start on that debate; he has been studying the social consequences of skin color for more than 20 years. He is the editor of a new scholarly book, Racism in the 21st Century: An Empirical Analysis of Skin Color (Springer). TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs spoke with Hall about race and its impact on the current campaign.
TIME: How did you first get interested in the subject of skin color?
Ronald Hall: Before I got into academia, I worked in a mental health clinic. Ninety percent of the patients were African-American, because it was in Detroit. Sometimes we would get at their underlying problems. It seemed it would always have something to do with skin color, but they never would want to talk about that. That spurred me to start doing a lot of reading. And the reading informed me about something I already knew about, sort of at a subconscious level. It's an experience with skin color that most African-Americans are aware of, but it's so buried and so taboo that unless you read about it, or it's mentioned, some of us don't even know that it still exists.
What does Obama's selection as the Democratic nominee mean in the context of skin color?
The issue with Obama for me is I'm amazed and I shouldn't be at the number of people of color who don't support him when he's a person of color who supports policies that would benefit persons of color.
What do you think about the fact that white America has been so accepting of Obama?
I think that is evidence that there is some movement in this country toward equality. But you still have the die-hards, who regardless if Obama walked on water probably wouldn't vote for him.
With one white parent, why is Obama considered black?
Because in American culture, African-American ancestry is what's called a "master status." So regardless of what he does, if there's any black blood in his heritage, he's considered black. It's what I referred to in The Color Complex, my first book, as the "one-drop theory." You only need one minor element of black blood to be defined as black.
Do you think white people are lying to pollsters about whether they'll really vote for Obama?
I do. I think that's why at this point the campaign is so competitive. There are people who want to be politically correct [in what they say]. But I also should give credit, and say that there are a sizable number of Euro-Americans who are generally in support of Obama and will vote for him.
Do you think that there is more acceptance now of people who are biracial?
I think they've always been more tolerated by whites. But people have the misconception that that means it's an easy life for them, and it's not. If you look at someone who looks white to most white people, they are less threatening. But some African-American people will not allow them their black identity. So they deal with issues on both sides.
What does "colorism" mean?
I don't like to use the term. It's a folk term. Here's a folk definition: Racism exists between blacks and whites. Colorism is a kind of racism that exists among people of color, based on skin color.
Is there a lot of prejudice within the African-American community against people who are darker?
I wouldn't say a lot, but I think it's an unspoken taboo issue that doesn't get addressed [much].
What did you think about the strong reaction against Reverend Wright, Obama's former pastor?
I think the Reverend Wrights give those who are on the fence a rationale to make a racist decision without appearing to be racist: "Oh, I didn't vote against Barack because he was black. I voted against him because he was associated with this racist." That way, they can have their cake and eat it, too: "I wanted to vote for the white guy, [but] I didn't vote for him because he was white; I voted for the white guy because the black guy was associated with a racist." So they resolve it in their own minds.