Landmark Case Addresses Racial Bias in Hiring

State Seal of Iowa.
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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. ( 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 …

What WOULD Jesus Say?

Sometimes, I find myself wishing Jesus would come to earth for a few days and clear some things up.

He could probably settle a lot of the confusion that swirls around him.

It would be interesting to see how he looked, and what he would say about pictures that have him with that long brown hair.

But mostly, it would be interesting to get his take on what he reportedly said.

This little diatribe comes on heels of my reading a comment on a blog, “Unedited Politics,”  which had put President Obama’s recent speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on his site. One of the comments said something to the effect that Jesus wanted individuals to help poor people, that “social justice makes Christians lazy.”


The person who made the comment  referred to the Biblical passage found in three of the Gospels, where Jesus says to people around him, in response to their ire at a woman anointing his feet with some very expensive oil, that “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” That passage is found in Matthew and John as well.

Someone had apparently lifted that passage of scripture as proof that Jesus is a supporter of social justice, i.e., societies helping the poor, and the writer of the comment took issue, lifting up the “social justice makes Christians lazy” jewel.

That comment has bothered me all day. It reminded me of how the late Strom Thurmond once said, in acknowledging that Jesus advised us to help and love our neighbors, that Jesus would certainly allow us to “choose our neighbors.”

I know from having studied how the words of the Bible have been manipulated in order to keep certain power relationships intact – meaning the Bible’s words have been used to justify sexism, racism, militarism.

But Jesus’ words seem so…obvious. How is it that anyone could think that the words of Jesus do not mandate us to engage in social justice, to take care of each other, the “least of these,” as he said in the Gospel of Matthew?

The late Derrick Bell writes, in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, that racism is permanent, that it will never go away. That is a sad and sobering thought, but if the words of the One who was sent to teach us about the love of God cannot or are not interpreted uniformly, perhaps Bell is right.

I guess it makes no difference that people in the Bible were always under some kind of oppression, so a mandate for social justice would make sense. From the beginning, there was always a “we” and a “them;” oppressors included the Egyptians, the Assyrians, Babylonians,Persians, Greeks and finally, the Romans. In times of prosperity, the people of God would forget their God and go after the pagan gods, trying their best to fit into that society. Always, the oppressors would take economic advantage of the oppressed, but the oppressed, instead of turning back toward the the Hebrew god who had led them through the wilderness, would turn toward those whom they could see and aspire to be like them.

It spelled disaster for God’s people, if the Bible is to be believed.

I have heard people reject what seems to be a god who turned away from his people because of their apostasy, but goodness, is anything in the Bible sacred, beyond convenient translation and interpretation?

If a person can interpret the words of Jesus in such a way that would make social justice not a central part of Jesus’ message, then what is sacred? What WOULD Jesus say?

I wish he’d come for a visit, if just for a few days.

A candid observation …

Sometimes, when I notice things, it takes a minute for it all to register, for me to make sense – or realize that I cannot make sense – out of what I see.

That’s what happened last week. The world was shocked at the news of the death of Steve Jobs, our own American guru who arguably may have made the biggest difference in all of our lives than anyone since Thomas Edison or the Wright Brothers.

I was shocked and saddened; Jobs was fairly young and his genius will be missed.

But I was also saddened because two other people died last week who also changed the lives of many Americans and yet their deaths were hardly mentioned or even covered by the news: the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Prof. Derrick Bell.

Though they fought in different venues, both Shuttlesworth and Bell were fierce and tenacious soldiers in the battles for civil rights waged during the 60s and beyond. While Shuttlesworth faced overt violence and danger as he fought for basic civil rights of African Americans, including their right to vote, Bell fought a more insidious violence, that non-verbal racial animosity that keeps segregation a reality in the academy.

Shuttlesworth put his life on the line in the fight for justice; Bell put his livelihood on the line as he fought pristine educational establishments on their hiring practices which too often kept African Americans and women out of tenured positions.

Shuttlesworth was a Christian minister; Bell was the first African American to earn tenure at Harvard University, a position he sacrificed for his beliefs.

The omission of mention of the deaths of these two men bothered me so much that I ended up tweeting Anderson Cooper, asking him if CNN was seriously not going to cover these stories? Though I did not see or hear reports all that day, I was told they were done …

But the “below the fold” attitude regarding the deaths of Shuttlesworth and Bell which I observed on that day gave me pause. I had attended a meeting just that day sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund at which Marian Wright Edelman said that the state of black, brown and poor people in this country is as bad as it was immediately after the Civil War.

She is not the only person who has said the same. The fact that the progress made by black people especially seems to be moving backward and not forward is sobering and troubling. The old adage, “If you’re white, you’re right, if you’re yellow, you’re mellow, if you’re brown, stick around, but if you’re black, get back” seems to be a permanent part of America’s ethos.

Steve Jobs was an admirable man, a genius for sure, but Shuttlesworth and Bell were admirable and heroic, risking life and livelihood for the sake of dispossessed people.

Why doesn’t America care about that?

It is the 21st century. Why hasn’t America gotten rid of her peculiar virus called racism? To add fuel to that thought, my daughter told me of how a very upscale neighborhood near us had an incident of racial hatred just last week; someone spray-painted the “n” word on the car of an African American family that recently moved in.

“Mom,” she said, “Isn’t this the 21st century? Are we still going through this kind of stuff?

Apparently so. It is troubling, but the truth of the matter is, America is not well, not even close. In spite of the Civil War and the civil rights era, the virus called racism is still eating away at the core of this nation.

That is a candid observation.