There’s Still Bias Out There, and We Still Need Affirmative Action

If we listen to Justice Sonia Sotomayor and we’re candid about race, it’s easier to understand why affirmative action is still necessary.

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Mentoring

Still another study sheds light on how implicit bias might impact the decision teachers make about which students to mentor. Researchers found that professors replied more often to requests to meet that came from students with generically “white-sounding” names than when the names were associated with minorities.

Grading

The effects of implicit bias in the school setting may also be felt more directly as teachers grade homework or decide whom they’ll discipline. A recent study found that, when grading a single memo, law-firm partners gave lower grades when the author was a hypothetical black law student than when the author was a hypothetical white law student.

Another study at the grade school level found that teachers may rely on stereotypes regarding the academic abilities of students simply based on the student’s first name. The researchers gave short essays written by fifth-grade students to teachers to evaluate, and then randomly linked authorship of the essays to “common, popular” names and to “rare, unpopular” names. The teachers gave lower grades to those essays linked with “rare, unpopular” names than those linked with common names.

Given that 83 percent of public school teachers are white, while minorities make up 40 percent of public school students, this study is particularly relevant. White teachers are likely to be more familiar with white-sounding names, which to them are “common,” than names from black, Hispanic or other minority cultures, creating a situation in which teachers unconsciously give minority students lower grades—grades that will have a direct impact on students’ academic success.

The effects of implicit bias in our schools are all too real. Affirmative action, then, will continue to be necessary until we rid ourselves of both explicit and unconscious forms of discrimination and the playing field for all students is truly even.

All this brings me back to Sotomayor’s challenge to speak openly and candidly about race. I encourage each of us to take a frank look at how the decisions we make may be the result of implicit bias. I’m not in education, but I do work with interns.

What assumptions do I make about our new interns? Did I just ask my friend’s 14-year-old nephew if he played basketball because he’s black? Am I dismissive of emails from folks with “ethnic sounding” names? Only when we address our own implicit biases, and when opportunities are truly equal for every student in America, will affirmative action no longer be necessary.

A. Gordon is a recent graduate of the University of California Berkeley Law School.