Bias: You Don’t Have to See It to Believe It

Iowa is dealing with one of the largest class-action lawsuits of its kind against the entire state government’s civil service system. Some 6,000 African-American plaintiffs are saying since 2003 they were systemically passed over for jobs and promotions.

“The plaintiffs … do not say they faced overt racism or discriminatory hiring tests in Iowa, a state that is 91 percent white. Instead, their lawyers argue that managers subconsciously favored whites across state government, leaving blacks at a disadvantage in decisions over who got interviewed, hired and promoted,” an article about the case said.

This is particularly interesting because apparently similar cases against local governments have failed — it’s tough to explicate and prove disparities in mistreatment of this type. But science may be the answer — or at least offer some measure of proof.

The article said that University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald, an expert on implicit bias who testified on the plaintiffs’ behalf, developed an Implicit Association Test to test racial stereotypes. The resulting research found a preference for whites over blacks in up to 80 percent of test takers among people who did not consider themselves to be racist.

This kind of research makes me want to hop up and down pointing and yelling, ‘See! Told ya.’ This is why I talk the subject of unconscious bias darn near to death. Just because you don’t see it — or don’t want to acknowledge it exists — doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and that the unseen isn’t having a tangible impact on actual people.
“Attorney Thomas Newkirk said the science and other evidence that shows disadvantaged groups such as blacks face employment discrimination in subtle ways ‘is becoming overwhelming,’” the article said.

Lawyers are asking for lost wages to the tune of $67 million minus what plaintiffs earned in the meantime, and that changes be made in the way state officials train managers, screen candidates and track disparities in hiring. We’ll see how it plays out.