From Up North

Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions

The deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police in Ferguson, Mo., in Cleveland and on Staten Island have reignited a debate about race. Some argue that these events are isolated and that racism is a thing of the past. Others contend that they are merely the tip of the iceberg, highlighting that skin color still has a huge effect on how people are treated.

Arguments about race are often heated and anecdotal. As a social scientist, I naturally turn to empirical research for answers. As it turns out, an impressive body of research spanning decades addresses just these issues — and leads to some uncomfortable conclusions and makes us look at this debate from a different angle.

The central challenge of such research is isolating the effect of race from other factors. For example, we know African-Americans earn less income, on average, than whites. Maybe that is evidence that employers discriminate against them. But maybe not. We also know African-Americans tend to be stuck in neighborhoods with worse schools, and perhaps that — and not race directly — explains the wage gap. If so, perhaps policy should focus on place rather than race, as some argue.