Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Realities of Racial Bias & Merit

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling which upheld the state of Michigan's voter-approved ban on affirmative action in higher education.  It's important to note that the advocates for the ban -- chief among them Ward Connerly -- argue that affirmative action is "unfair" because it seeks to give consideration to minorities on the basis of race instead of on the basis of their own merit.  Which is to say that race plays no role in merit.

Hold that thought.  We're going to come back to it.

Meanwhile, the research group Nextions released a study this week entitled "Written in Black & White: Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills." In this study, a legal research memo was drafted by 5 partners from 5 different law firms and then distributed to 60 different law firm partners for review.  Within the legal memo, 22 different errors were deliberately included.  Of those 22 errors, 7 were minor typos or grammatical errors, 6 were substantive errors, 5 were errors about the facts, and 4 were errors in applying the law to the facts in the discussion and conclusion sections of the memo.  Again, these errors were purposely put in place to see how the 60 partners would react to them.  The 60 partners were given the materials that were used to prepare the memo and told that the memo was written by a third year associate.  They were asked to evaluate the associate's writing ability and to keep track of any errors that they found.  Here's the kicker:

Half of the partners were told that the memo was written by a black associate, and the other half were told that the exact same memo was written by a white associate.

The results after the jump:





Per Nextions:

  • The exact same memo, averaged a 3.2/5.0 rating under our hypothetical “African American” Thomas Meyer and a 4.1/5.0 rating under hypothetical “Caucasian” Thomas Meyer.
  • The qualitative comments on memos, consistently, were also more positive for the “Caucasian” Thomas Meyer than our “African American” Thomas Meyer.
  • An average of 2.9/7.0 spelling grammar errors were found in “Caucasian” Thomas Meyer’s memo in comparison to 5.8/7.0 spelling/grammar errors found in “African American” Thomas Meyer’s memo.
  • An average of 4.1/6.0 technical writing errors were found in “Caucasian” Thomas Meyer’s memo in comparison to 4.9/6.0 technical writing errors found in “African American” Thomas Meyer’s memo.
  • An average of 3.2/5.0 errors in facts were found in “Caucasian” Thomas Meyer’s memo in comparison to 3.9/5.0 errors in facts were found in “African American” Thomas Meyer’s memo.
  • Overall, “Caucasian” Thomas Meyer’s memo was evaluated to be better in regards to the analysis of facts and had substantively fewer critical comments.
In other words, the merit of the exact same memo was viewed differently on the basis of race.

Those law firm partners who were told that the memo was written by a white associate tended to give that associate the benefit of the doubt when it came to finding the errors in the writing.  Conversely, those law firm partners who were told that the memo was written by a black associate tended to approach it from the understanding that it must be subpar.  Perhaps the most telling aspect of this study is in the number of spelling errors found: those who thought they were reading a white associate's memo only found about 3 out of the 7 typos in the memo, whereas those who thought they were reading a black associate's memo found almost all 7 of the typo's.  You tend to find things when you specifically look for them.  This strongly suggests that the partners who reviewed the "black associate" memo went into it specifically looking for the typo's.  And when they found them, their biases were confirmed.

As black law firm associates, we are all very much aware that this type of bias exists in our day to day evaluations and interactions on the job.  This study is but a mere glimpse into our reality.  That is why it's difficult to take people like Ward Connerly seriously when they say things like merit has nothing to do with race.  I have no doubt that he actually believes that, but that just lets me know that he's blind to the reality that the rest of us have experienced on a daily basis.  And when you're ignorant to the reality of how racial bias affects people, you really shouldn't be trying to legislate your limited understanding of the subject on behalf of the rest of us.


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