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Subconscious racial bias exists and must be recognized

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 27, 2012 6:30 AM

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No matter the decision, Iowa's ethnic-discrimination case will succeed in bringing to light a very important and seldom-discussed issue: that bias still exists, whether conscious or subconscious.

Judge Robert Blink is in the process of deciding a high-profile class-action lawsuit. An estimated 6,000 black individuals are suing the state of Iowa for alleged discrimination in hiring and promotion. What makes this case especially intriguing is that they are not suing for outright or intentional discrimination. Rather, they claim that the managers in question subconsciously favored whites. Those suing aim to claim $67 million, but their lawyers say that their true goal is to change the fundamentals behind the hiring process.

Many studies support the plaintiffs' claims, and other research suggests a solution. One of the easiest (and most cost-efficient) ways to help extinguish bias is to accept it and openly recognizes that it exists. Any revisions to the current process should lean heavily on this premise — because prejudice of the subconscious may be impossible to eliminate.

Subconscious discrimination appears to be prevalent at all ages and races. One study conducted by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute supports this in regard to adults. The conductors of the study had both black and white participants attempt to discern pictures of guns from pictures from tools.

Before they showed the participants' the pictures, the experimenters first showed a picture of either a black or white person. When participants were first shown a picture of a black person, they were statistically more likely to mistake a tool for a gun than trials preceded by a picture of a white person. The findings support that stereotyping is often a knee-jerk reaction outside of their conscious control.

The same biases were found in school-age children in 2010. University of Chicago Professor Margaret Beale Spencer conducted a pilot study involving two age groups — 5- to 6-year-olds and 9- to 10-year-olds. Spencer displayed six cartoon people varying in the color ranging from lightest to darkest. She then asked them questions and had the children point to one of the six figures to respond. She found that both ethnicities more often attributed positive aspects to whites and negative aspects to blacks — though the apparent discrimination was much more common in white children.

Many may look at the aforementioned study and say that there is a need to eliminate stereotyping at younger ages, but another study suggests that subconscious discrimination will exist no matter the upbringing.

A 2005 study published in Psychological Science looked to determine whether ethnic preference is innate — and the results suggest that it is. The researchers had 3-month-old babies sit on their mothers' laps and look at different pictures of people on a computer screen. It found that white babies spent 63 percent more time viewing pictures of white people, and African-American babies spent 23 percent more time looking at pictures of people sharing their skin color. The researchers suggest that growing up in a mixed environment would do much to eliminating those preferences.

But while we can spend much time and many resources to nip subconscious prejudice at its bud, that prejudice will continue to exist in grown adults in positions of power for the foreseeable future. This fact must be open and recognized — because studies show that when it is open and recognized, bias is less likely.

A series of studies from Tufts University found that, in court cases, the absence of an ethnic element actually increases the likelihood of harsher sentences for black defendants. For example, the studies suggest that bias will not be a factor in Iowa's discrimination decision as much as it would be for cases that are not ethnically charged, such as marijuana possession.

When subconscious bias is recognized, it is less likely to be a factor in making decisions. Whether or not the plaintiffs win their case against the state of Iowa, the merit of their argument should be recognized, and changes in the hiring and promotional processes should be adjusted accordingly.


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