A recent survey conducted by APM Research Labs, a division of American Public Media, demonstrates that Minnesota minorities perceive that they have suffered race discrimination at significantly higher levels than national averages, while white Minnesotans deny the existence of discrimination at far higher rates than national averages. In a survey of 1500 Minnesotans, 38% of white respondents stated that race discrimination frequently occurs, compared with 55% nationally. By contrast, 70% of black respondents reported experiencing discrimination in employment, compared to 50% nationally. 50% of Minnesotan American Indians reported experiencing discrimination in housing, compared to 17% nationally.
These results suggest that not only is race discrimination more prevalent in Minnesota than nationally, but that many of those perpetuating this discrimination – the white majority population – don’t believe this is occurring. In other words, we all have a great deal of work to do in helping to address these issues and the “perception disparity” that exists in this state. While perception isn’t always the same as reality, in this area – inequality in employment and housing opportunities – perception is exactly what drives the behaviors that give rise to these cases and the increases in cases filed. If a decision maker does not believe that discrimination is a problem or occurs with some frequency, that decision maker is far more likely to unwittingly make discriminatory decisions.
Next Steps We Can Take Individually
The most important step each of us can take in addressing these disparities is to gain a better understanding of the actual motivations that can result in discrimination. As an advocate who has devoted almost 35 years to representing minorities in all protected classes, I have come to understand that only a small fraction of the discrimination, whether it be employment- or housing-based, is the product of overt bias or bigotry. While there are unfortunately some among us who espouse and act on racist views, most of us reject any notion that race-based equality is not an ideal that we should all strive to achieve.
This majority, however, are still capable or making discriminatory decisions or taking actions that perpetuate discrimination. That’s because the vast majority of discrimination occurs because of “implicit bias.” Implicit bias manifests itself when decisions or actions are based in whole or in part on either generally held “stereotypes” about those who do not look like us, or it can mean simply being unfamiliar or uncomfortable with those who are different from us and acting on this discomfort.
There are many treatises and studies explaining how implicit bias often works in all of us, and suggesting steps to overcome this very common phenomenon. The first step is generally to accept this human condition – that tribalism is essentially ingrained in our DNA – and both communicate openly about it and recognize the circumstances where it is prone to being indulged.
Next Steps We Can Take Collectively
Once we recognize individually that most discrimination is the result of implicit bias, we need to examine the systems at every level which are designed to either prevent discrimination, or hold companies accountable when it occurs. Too often companies with “state of the art” policies drop the ball when it comes to actually investigating complaints of discriminatory treatment. That’s generally because the ostensibly neutral investigators are looking for overt evidence of bias, thus ignoring the very mechanism that often results in discrimination: implicit bias.
Companies should therefore train investigators to focus less on overt manifestations of bias, and more on the results of any decision-making process challenged as discriminatory, and not just in the specific decision under review. If minorities are consistently being passed over, or consistently being treated more harshly than similarly-situated majority peers, this should be seen as discriminatory even if the decision makers deny any bias. When this occurs, changes need to be identified and enforced which reverse this dynamic and root out the influence of implicit bias.
In a similar vein, Courts at the state and federal level need to be educated by advocates about how implicit bias works whenever cases are filed, and understand that discriminatory decisions can still be made even by well-intentioned individuals. Schaefer Halleen attorneys understand this well, and our excellent results in this field stems directly from this understanding.