Acknowledging our bias: Asking the right questions

Words written on the courthouse, half-hidden in shadow
Words written on the courthouse, half-hidden in shadow

Most people are fully aware, in their conscious minds, that human beings are human beings no matter what they look like; that “you can’t tell a book by its cover,” but rather, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” These old sayings are clichés precisely because human beings have recognized for centuries that they are true. Yet the truth we know with the intellect often seems far removed from our daily behavior.

A recent scan of employment law news revealed a district court decision that certified a class of plaintiffs suing for race discrimination in employment. Rollins v. Traylor Brothers, Case No. 14-CV-1414 (W.D. Wash. Jan. 21, 2016) (Slip opinion found here.) Defendants in the case were construction contractors building part of a light rail system for Sound Transit in Seattle. The contractors hired laborers for the project from among candidates dispatched by a local union office. In response to “allegations of discrimination and harassment” made by black laborers, Sound Transit hired an investigator and statistician, whose study concluded that the contractors’ “subjective decision-making had a disparate impact on black laborers.” The statistician reported specifically that black laborers dispatched to defendants’ site had a “threefold higher risk” of not being hired or of being terminated and that, on average, white and Hispanic laborers worked twice as many hours a week as black laborers.

Statistics like these are relatively familiar to us at OJPC. Part of my work is to catalog all the different ways Ohio law uses criminal records to exclude people from employment opportunities, and many employers reject any worker with a criminal record as a matter of course. Because the percentage of people with a record is four times as high among black Americans as among whites, criminal records have become a statistical proxy for race in employment. But criminal records were not even mentioned in the Sound Transit case! There, the employers actually defended their homogeneous workforce by arguing that the black workers sent to them “were simply less qualified” than the whites. (Slip op. at 18.) Evidently they really believed it, too: the court’s opinion cites evidence that certain managers took pride in assessing a worker’s capability simply by looking at him (slip op. at 23-24), and based on such assessments they “discharged or reassigned every [black laborer] who had been assigned to their crew.” (Slip op. at 15-16.) To these managers, it seems, dark skin was a reliable marker of being “simply less qualified.”¹ The story may seem shocking in the 21st century, but as we saw in last year’s viral video by Brave New Films, these managers were not unusual.

Last month at the Xavier University forum on #Black Lives Matter, one speaker described a research study in which volunteers were attached to instruments that measured sweating and other physical manifestations of pain. The volunteers then watched a person having his or her skin pricked with a pin while the instruments measured their pain sensations. When white volunteers watched a white person’s skin being pricked, they evidently felt the victims’ pain: the instrument readings were the same as if the volunteers were being pricked themselves. When white volunteers watched a black person’s skin being pricked, the instruments registered no response.

Thinking of the “pinprick study” instantly brought to mind Shylock’s famous speech from Merchant of Venice:

I am a Jew.
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?

All these loosely connected thoughts lead me to a single question: Why? Why haven’t we humans, all of us, incorporated the ancient knowledge so familiar to our brains into our souls and bodies – the systems that control empathy and fight-or-flight reactions? It is well past time that we understand not just with our brains, but in our guts, what Horton the elephant told us over sixty years ago: that “a person’s a person no matter how small” – and no matter what their gender or the color of their skin.

There are multiple forms of anti-racism training out there. Are they all aimed at the intellect? Those surely have value, but it is limited. Is there anti-racism training that will change not just our thinking but our instincts? Training like that I would like to receive, and for it I would enthusiastically spread the word.


¹ Not surprisingly, the same statistician that studied the defendant’s workforce had performed a parallel study of a different contractor using the same union-referral system to hire laborers for a separate part of the same light rail project. In the other contractor’s workforce, there was no statistically significant difference between blacks and whites with respect to hiring, termination or hours worked. (Slip op. at 2-3.) Apparently the other firm’s managers did not believe they could recognize a “less qualified” laborer simply by his dark skin.