Policy

Insights into the subtler side of racial bias

From: Blog

Donald Sterling's racist outburst the other day left a lot of people bewildered and angry. The media pounced and, of course, made an example of him. It's hard to believe, after all, that this kind of thing is happening today, given how far the country has come in some ways. But before you dismiss the Sterling rant as a one-off occurrence from a crotchety old man, think about this: There's some good scientific evidence that prejudice is still happening in otherwise very progressive arenas. For example, it may be going on at even the most prestigious academic institutions in the country. 

Last week, NPR had a story on the prejudice that can occur among faculty members in doctoral programs. The University of Pennsylvania researchers sent beautifully worded emails to the doctoral faculty at 250 schools, pretending to be students. The emails indicated how much they admired the faculty members' work, and asked whether they'd have time for a meeting. The names of the (fake) students were designed to sound Caucasian, African-American, Latino, Indian, and Asian. The researchers wanted to see if there were any differences in the likelihood of the faculty responding. 

And the results were fairly discouraging: Minorities and women got far fewer responses, with Asian students getting the fewest. Private schools were more likely to show these biases than public ones. And, amazingly, the race and gender of the faculty member didn't much matter—for example, an African-American professor wasn't any more likely than a Caucasian one to answer an email from an African-American student.

Funnily (or not), though bias existed across many disciplines, it was stronger in some. "The very worst in terms of bias is business academia," author Katherine Milkman told NPR. "So in business academia, we see a 25 percentage point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males vs. women and minorities." 

Whether or not this kind of bias happens on a conscious or subconscious level is not exactly clear, but, based on research from Booth, the odds are good that it's the latter. Marianne Bertrand has found that when HR personnel evaluate resumes, they show exactly the same kinds of bias for "white-sounding" names found in the UPenn study. Even judges show a clear racial bias when making sentencing decisions. And research by Eugene Caruso found that people's political beliefs can actually affect how they see biracial political candidates' skin tone. If people agree with a biracial candidate's political beliefs, they're more likely to see them as lighter than they are—if they disagree, they're more likely to see the candidates as darker. Though political beliefs are likely conscious choices, their effect on our perception of skin tone is likely happening below our radar, so to speak. 

So Sterling-like outbursts may be rare, but it's the subtler, subconscious biases that may be more concerning. If we're not even aware of some of our biases, it might be harder to shift them. Other Booth researchers are looking at these very issues—so stay tuned. We'll look into these questions more closely in the coming weeks. 

—Alice G. Walton
Cat:Policy, More, Sub:Behavioral Science, Economics,