Racial Bias is Everywhere
Debunking the misconception that only racists are biased. From the workplace to the media and police encounters to home sales, there is evidence of racial bias in all aspects of our lives.
Dr. Erika Hall, assistant professor of Organization and Management at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, focuses her research on the influence of race, gender, and class-based biases on interactions within the workplace and more broadly within society.
Racial Bias in the Workplace
Bias is an instance of prejudice and racial bias is an instance of prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race. In the workplace, racial bias manifests in a number of ways such as lower wages, higher job loss, being passed over for a promotion, and so on. It is important to understand the difference between bias in the workplace versus an anomalous outcome versus a true deficiency in performance that led to an outcome. With a sample size of one, that determination may be difficult but Hall has looked at hundreds and sometimes thousands of people and companies in her research studies which enables her to identify trends in discrimination.
Organizations can use control groups to evaluate whether or not an instance is due to racial bias. This means looking at a situation and determining if there was another person that had the same type of qualifications, who had the same résumé, would that person suffer the same outcomes as the Black person is right now.
Hall says hiring biases are quite common. There are negative stereotypes associated with Black candidates regarding future performance. Many résumé studies show that bias is in play with hiring managers if the name on top of that résumé is perceived to be black versus white. In these studies, a fictitious résumé is created with all the qualifications necessary for a position. Two copies of the résumé ─ one version with a stereotypically Black or Asian or Latino name on it and the other a name that is stereotypically white ─ are submitted to actual companies for real positions. Even though it is an identical résumé except for the name at the top, the callback rate for candidates with names that are stereotypically Black or minority, in general, tends to be lower than for candidates with “White” names.
Hall notes that it is not uncommon for people of color to change their name or go by their middle name in order to not be discriminated against when applying for a job. A study published in Administrative Science Quarterly suggested that both Black and Asian employees tend to change their names in a way that will make it whiter, a behavior known as résumé whitening.
Making your name seem more “white” is related to code-switching or when a person adjusts their style of speech, appearance, behavior, or expression based on the setting they are in (home vs office, for example) or those who are around them. Hall says everyone has to code-switch to some degree between their personal and professional lives, but it seems to be more distinct and more disparate for Black Americans.
Racial Bias Misconceptions
The biggest misconception about racial bias in the workplace, says Hall, is that you have to be a racist to be biased. A racist is someone who is prejudiced against people on the basis of their racial or ethnic group.
If you don't hire someone who is Black because you are fearful that your customers would respond better to someone that is white, you have introduced racial bias into the hiring process, even though you personally may not hold any negative feelings toward Black people.
Another example of racial bias can be found in the real estate industry. While companies that value homes for sale are bound by law not to discriminate, there are reports that it happens often. Homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods or homes that have evidence of Black owners (such as family photos) are appraised at lower rates than homes with white owners. Hall references an article in which a professional appraiser said that appraisers try to mirror the market. Buyers are less willing to purchase a home that was previously owned by a Black person and their valuation of the home reflects that. The appraisers may not be racist but they are contributing to discrimination and in doing so are disadvantaging Black home sellers.
Black vs African American
The terms Black and African American often are used interchangeably within the United States but there is a literal difference. Black refers to the entire diaspora of people with African heritage throughout the world, whereas African American refers to Black people within North America.
In research conducted in 2015, Hall found that the stereotypes associated with the Black label were more negative, less competent, less warm, and lower socioeconomic status than the African American label. In one experiment, identical job application are submitted for a position with the exception that one candidate is identified as Black and the other candidate is identified as African American. The Black candidate is less likely to be hired and is perceived as lower in competence and lower status.
Negative associations for the term Black versus African American are so common that they have become evident when doing Google Image searches. Hall conducted an experiment in which she Googled the term “Black people” and extracted the first 100 image results. Then, she immediately Googled the term “African American people” and extracted the first 100 image result. The image results for “Black people” were more negative, degrading, and stereotypical than the results for “African American people.”
Policing and Racial Bias
Hall has conducted research specifically exploring racial bias and law enforcement in the killings of unarmed Black males. She found that there were several stereotypes of Blacks that lead to higher rates of police force being used and higher tolerance among whites of force being used against Blacks.
The first stereotype is that Black youth as adult-like. On average, whites perceive Black youth to be older than they are. This can lead to police using more force against a Black youth than their age warrants. The killing of 12-year old Tamir Rice is an example of this. The second a stereotypes of Blacks is that they are sub-human. Research by Emory University professor Melissa Williams showed that whites viewed Blacks as more ape-like than other whites. The more that someone had this association, the more they condoned police brutality against Blacks. The third stereotype is that Blacks are super-human, especially as it pertains to strength. Again, this can lead to excessive force being used against a Black person. Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri police officer who killed 18-year old Michael Brown, suggested in an interview that Brown was like Hulk Hogan and he had to resort to the use of extreme force to his super-human strength.
There are also stereotypes of Blacks as violent and Blacks as criminals. This leads to sub-conscious associations that can result in very detrimental outcomes for Blacks in their encounters with law enforcement. For example, in studies in police officers are shown white faces and Black faces with either a gun or cell phone on top of the face and must quickly assess threats, they more often mistake Black faces with cell phones as a threat.
This relates to signal detection analysis, which is a tool that researchers use to measure how sensitive a shooter is toward shooting one group of people versus the other. So for example, the studies show that people tend to have a lower bar for shooting an unarmed Black man versus an unarmed white man, and they tend to do so at a quicker rate.
Hall notes that racism is cultural and therefore it can be pervasive across society. Black police officers for example can be racist towards Black civilians. Some studies show that there is less of an implicit bias among Black police officers, but they hold some of the implicit biases that the white police officers do.
More people and companies are looking seriously at the issue of racial bias and it permeates our personal and professional lives. Organizations are evening hiring researchers like Hall to analyze their practices and policies to identify areas of improvement.
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