“Numbers Take Us Only So Far”

Panoramic photo of large crowd of people. Slow shutter speed motion blur.

I was once evicted from an apartment because I was black. I had secured a lovely place on the banks of Lake Geneva through an agent and therefore hadn’t met the owner in person before signing the lease. Once my family and I moved in and the color of my skin was clear to see, the landlady asked us to leave. If she had known that I was black, I was told, she would never have rented to me.

Terrible as it felt at the time, her directness was useful to me. It meant I didn’t have to scour the facts looking for some other, nonracist rationale for her sudden rejection.

Many people have been denied housing, bank loans, jobs, promotions, and more because of their race. But they’re rarely told that’s the reason, as I was—particularly in the workplace. For one thing, such discrimination is illegal. For another, executives tend to think—and have a strong desire to believe—that they’re hiring and promoting people fairly when they aren’t. (Research shows that individuals who view themselves as objective are often the ones who apply the most unconscious bias.) Though managers don’t cite or (usually) even perceive race as a factor in their decisions, they use ambiguous assessment criteria to filter out people who aren’t like them, research by Kellogg professor Lauren Rivera shows. People in marginalized racial and ethnic groups are deemed more often than whites to be “not the right cultural fit” or “not ready” for high-level roles; they’re taken out of the running because their “communication style” is somehow off the mark. They’re left only with lingering suspicions that their identity is the real issue, especially when decision makers’ bias is masked by good intentions.

 

 

By Maxine Williams

 

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