Black Skin Means Bad News

I’ve talked to many diversity executives over the years, and almost all have confirmed that to create real traction for their initiatives, to even gain acceptance of their presence and value, they have to talk about diversity like a business. That means hard numbers, tangible connections to key stakeholders and strategic alignment to established business goals and needs. No soft stuff.

Emotion, historical baggage, discussions of right or wrong, or playing the blame game and pointing fingers, these things do not work, they say. In fact, these things actively work against the diversity executive, even in situations where there are acknowledged or apparent workforce diversity issues.

But according to some new research, numbers may not always work to sway hearts and minds and promote positive action. A study from Stanford University psychologists Jennifer L. Eberhardt and Rebecca C. Hetey revealed you can’t fight racial injustice with statistics either.

To be transparent, the study was focused on criminal justice reform, but the implications seem clear: In many eyes, black skin color — particularly a lot of black bodies in one place — is just bad.

Slate writer Jamelle Bouie, who wrote up an analysis of the new research, said that a stats-first approach to mitigating issues related to race and incarceration isn’t just ineffective, but it could actually be counterproductive.

Eberhardt and Hetey conducted an experiment in San Francisco where a white female researcher showed white voters a video featuring 80 mug shots of white and black male inmates. The researchers manipulated the ratio of white to black inmates to show disparities in the prison population for different viewing groups. Some saw videos where prison populations had more black inmates. Others saw populations with more white inmates.

After viewing, each group was asked to sign a petition making California’s “three-strike” law less punitive. The law advocates harsher sentences for offenders with three or more convictions. More than half of the participants who saw fewer black mug shots agreed to sign. But of study participants who saw more black mug shots, less than 28 percent agreed to sign.

Next Eberhardt and Hetey conducted a similar study of 164 white New York residents involving demographic statistics and a petition for the state’s “stop and frisk” policy; they got similar results.

Essentially, these white adult research groups associated black skin with a need for harsher punishment. This would neatly explain why statistically, so many more black criminals or alleged criminals are killed by police rather than simply apprehended.

It’s heady stuff; it also explains why black employees may complain more often than white employees or other minorities of poor treatment in the workplace. There’s an invisible badge of dishonor and negativity stamped to black flesh, whether it’s deserved or not.

What to do about it? Excellent question. And as with most discussions of diversity and inclusion, it’s not a question with an easy or even a moderately difficult answer. There is a legacy in this country, and in the world, that associates dark skin with bad and white or light skin with good, or at least better.

I could talk about awareness building, setting the right example, teaching our managers to promote merit-based talent management and HR processes and to caution them against making snap, superficial judgments without considering all mitigating factors. These are all perfectly valid solutions to combat this problem.

But at the end of the day it comes down to one simple cliché: you can’t always judge a book by its cover. If you do, you may end up literally or metaphorically shooting an unarmed man down in the street.