Landmark Case Addresses Racial Bias in Hiring

State Seal of Iowa.

Image via Wikipedia

In his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, the late Professor Derrick Bell argues that racism is permanent; in other words, it will never go away.

That thought registered today as I read about a pending case that is being decided in Iowa.  In a story posted on Yahoo News, the Associated Press reported that there is a class action suit that has been filed against the entire state government of Iowa. (http://news.yahoo.com/denied-jobs-blacks-iowa-test-bias-theory-080416196.html). The plaintiffs – 6,000 African – Americans – have charged that they have been denied jobs on the basis of their race.

The plaintiffs say that the racism has not been overt; rather, they say potential state employers subconsciously harbor feelings of racial bias, a charge they back up by the results of a test developed by University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald, called the “Implicit Association Test.” According to the AP report, results of that test taken by white employers show a high degree of racial bias – though many of those who took the test would not have considered, or do not consider, themselves to be racist.

The words of Derrick Bell come back: racism is permanent. It is not going away.

I thought of his words when I listened to Dr. Jeanne Middleton Hairston, who is the national director of the CDF Freedom Schools® program. An historian, she was giving an absolutely mesmerizing summary of some things that had happened in African-American history that helped convince Civil Rights workers in the 60s of the need for social justice work to extend to public education. I wondered to myself why it is that what she was teaching is not taught in schools – public and private, but then I had to remember: the institution of racism keeps much of what is true underground.

In the Iowa case, which will be decided by Judge Robert Blink, the plaintiffs could win many dollars from cases of alleged discrimination dating back to 2003, but some say the money is not the goal. What is needed, they say, is a change in hiring practices, using tools which can test or measure implicit bias in those doing the hiring. Test results of people given the test so far show that up to 80 percent of employers have a subliminal preference of whites over blacks.

It is not surprising, but it is disappointing that racism has not hastened from the American scene. I have recently learned that so much about America – even the naming of states in the Union – was based on race. In the new book, Slavery by Another Name, author Douglas A. Blackmon describes how slavery under the peonage system existed in this nation until 40 years ago! The research is riveting, but at the end of the day, it is just so exhausting, this racism issue.

Certainly, scores of African-Americans who have been passed over for jobs by less-qualified whites are not surprised that a test finds implicit bias in those who hire. It is good, though, to have a scientific tool by which to measure what so many people have complained of for so long; the presence of hard data tends to verify what emotional testimony of the same cannot.

It will be interesting – and critical – to see how this case plays out.  My hope is that the judge is able to look at the data and be objective – and be able to withstand the certain criticism that will come if he rules in favor of the plaintiffs.

But my bigger hope is that this racism thing – America’s disease – will be the focus of more scientific study with hard results, so that solutions might be found to problems that have kept African-Americans and other minorities in underclass status for far too long.

A candid observation …

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Comments

  1. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of racism being a permanent and everlasting problem, but I do think it’s interesting that subliminal preferences and subconscious attitudes are being tested in Iowa. Even if overt racism is eradicated in this country, I think people will probably always have those attitudes and preferences that are racially, culturally, or socially biased. I hope too that more scientists and researchers look into this phenomenon. Very interesting.

  2. I agree. I thought it was fascinating.It’ll be interesting to see how the case is decided.

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