Working for Justice

Study Shows Implicit Bias against African-American Attorneys at Law Firms

Posted July 26th, 2017 by in Race Discrimination.

Ever feel like you’ve received extra scrutiny because of your race?  Research suggests that these fears may be well founded.  A recent study indicates that supervisors are far more likely to overlook or forgive the mistakes of white employees – while African-American employees are far more likely to have their mistakes caught, criticized, and used to question their overall competence.

The study, called Written in Black & White: Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills, asked law partners to rate the quality of a legal memo that – unbeknownst to them – contained nearly two dozen errors that the researchers had deliberately inserted.  Half of the partners reviewing the memo were told that it had been written by an African-American associate, while the other half were told the same document had been written by a white associate.

The results were striking.  The law partners who thought the memo had been written by a white lawyer rated the memo 28% better than the law partners who thought it had been written by an African-American attorney.  The law partners also found 43% more errors – of facts, spelling, grammar, and technical writing – when they thought the memo was written by an African-American attorney than when they thought it was written by a white lawyer.  Law partners’ qualitative feedback also diverged along racial lines – the law partners gave more negative comments about the memos they thought had been written by African-American attorneys.

As the study concluded, the law partners who rated the memos were exhibiting a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.”  As the researchers explained, “When expecting to find fewer errors, we find fewer errors. When expecting to find more errors, we find more errors.”   The study suggested several ways for employers to try to reduce racially-inflected confirmation bias, including implementing training on unconscious bias and conducting blind evaluations of employee writing.

While overt prejudice is less common today than it once was, unconscious bias or “implicit bias” remains a serious and widespread obstacle that African-Americans face, both as job candidates and as employees.  If you believe that you have been a victim of racial discrimination in your workplace, a race discrimination attorney can advise you about your rights under federal, state, and local laws.  Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP has experienced employment attorneys in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, and Tennessee.

Alexandra Harwin

Alexandra Harwin

Ali Harwin is a partner in the New York Office of Sanford Heisler Sharp and Co-Chair of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Title VII practice. Learn More

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