Updated April 18, 2012: Attorney: Plaintiffs will appeal dismissal of Iowa 'unconscious bias' discrimination lawsuit
By Stephanie Siek, CNN
(CNN) – According to her resume, Nansi Woods looked like a good fit for the job, an adviser position at the Iowa Workforce Development office. She had a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling, a bachelor's degree in communications, one of several preferred fields related to the job and a minor in social work. She more than met the minimum requirements listed in the job description, which asked for an associate's degree or certificate of education completion.
Another applicant had a bachelor's degree in a preferred field, but was still taking courses toward a master's degree in human resources. A third person seeking the job had no degree, no specific job experience and none of the listed computer skills. These last two applicants – both of them white – were offered the job. Woods, who is black, was never granted an interview.
A class action suit filed in 2007 on behalf of Woods and up to 6,000 other African-Americans who were passed over for jobs or promotions with the state of Iowa alleges that they were victims of discrimination.
The plaintiff's attorneys attempted to remove lead plaintiff, Linda Pippen, from the case after she was convicted of embezzling more than $43,000 in unemployment benefits from the state, but a judge denied the motion. Thomas Newkirk, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said Pippen’s conviction should not cast doubt on the others' discrimination claims, and that her misconduct occurred after the suit was filed.
Jeff Thompson, the state attorney representing Iowa, said that the state could not comment on an ongoing case. But in the state's answer to the lawsuit, it denies the allegations of discrimination.
Lawyers from both sides of the case said an Iowa court judge was expected to rule on the suit, Pippen et al. v. State of Iowa, soon.
The plaintiffs' attorneys say the discrimination is not necessarily a result of overt racism. They say the discriminatory hiring was often the result of implicit bias – an unconscious preference of the mostly white hiring officials for white applicants over black applicants.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs faced a key obstacle – proving the existence of something that white people might not be able to see. They had to show that discrimination might take place, even if it's not intentional.
The lawsuit cites the Implicit Association Test, known as the IAT, to demonstrate how unconscious biases against African-Americans might have influenced behavior of Iowa hiring officials.
The test used in the AC360 "Kids on Race" special series, which looked at children and teens' attitudes toward race and interracial interactions, uses some of the principles established in the IAT.
The IAT was created in 1998 by University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald as a way to measure unconscious bias. Since then, many different versions have been developed to measure different kinds of biases, but it’s the way the implicit association test measures attitudes toward different racial groups that has become famous. Test takers are shown pictures of both African-American and white faces and are asked to match them with either negative or positive words. The faster a test subject associates a word with the image, the closer the subject's association between the two. The IAT can be taken online at Harvard University's Project Implicit website – click on "Demonstration" and when presented with a list of tests, click on "Race IAT."
The test has been taken more than one million times, and Greenwald and other researchers established that 70% to 80% of American test takers have a measurable automatic preference for white people over black people – regardless of the test taker’s race, gender or age. Greenwald said this preference for whites can be measured in more than 75% of white Americans, and about the same rate for Asian-Americans. Hispanic test takers score a bit less, 70%. A third of African-Americans showed an unconscious preference for whites, a third for blacks, and a third showed no preference for either group.
Greenwald said it is important to remember that most of those whose testing shows an unconscious bias against blacks are not racists – to the contrary, the bias shows up even in those who profess a deep belief in racial equality. Most are surprised to hear that they express any kind of preference for one race over another.
"If we're going to talk about the context of this Iowa case, the question is how can discrimination occur in this large organization when the vast majority of this organization will say they have no racial biases; they don't prefer white to black; they’re egalitarian," Greenwald said. "But this unconscious race preference has been shown in research to be closely related to behavior, so that people with this preference display behavior that indicates their preference for white over black."
Thomas Newkirk, one of workers' lead attorneys, said that the test proves that unconscious bias exists nationwide, among a variety of demographic categories – and that there's no evidence that people in Iowa are immune.
"You can’t assume that bias is not in the room," Newkirk said. "You have to assume it is in the room, and then you can do something about it."
Iowa as a whole is 91.3% white, and 2.9% black, according to 2010 Census results.
A state-commissioned analysis of hiring patterns in Iowa state government from 2004-2006 showed that a significantly lower number of qualified African-Americans than whites were selected for job interviews or hired for the jobs. The data presented in the report by CPS Human Resources Services indicated that the discrepancies between the success of black and white applicants were so wide, the chance of the discrepancy being attributable to anything other than race was approximately less than one in one billion. According to the report, 88.02% of the "qualified applicants" for jobs in that time period were white, and 91.33% of all people interviewed for jobs were white. Black people accounted for 5.97% of the applicants deemed qualified, but only 3.47% of those interviewed.
The lawsuit alleges that Iowa encouraged the belief that affirmative action required them to hire unqualified African-Americans; steered African-Americans into low-paying jobs; failed to give African-Americans credit for experience or considerations for promotions or title changes; kept managers with known racial biases in positions of power and refused to discipline white employees who discriminated or harassed African-Americans. The suit says the state preferred to hire less-qualified white or non-black minorities "to provide an excuse for the failure to hire the African-Americans and to further reduce the number of qualified internal African-American candidates for management positions."
It also said that the head of the state's Employee Services Department used a screening test proven to have a disproportionately adverse impact on African-Americans and to have little relation to the jobs offered as a way of filtering out African-American applicants.
The state work environment was "hostile and offensive," the suit said, "where African-Americans know that their race is a factor each and every day they are at work, knowing that if they complain they will be ignored or punished, knowing that less-qualified whites will be promoted, knowing that if they are promoted their ability will be doubted, and understanding that for them, as a class, there are fewer employment opportunities within state government than for whites as a class."
The suit asks that the state use implicit bias testing to find out how pervasive hidden biases are within the system, and conduct training that educates employees about the history of racial bias against African-Americans and the need for further training about affirmative action and its goals.
Newkirk said the case forces people to examine the subtle ways in which societal stereotypes about African-Americans' work habits, education and capabilities can color their thinking and actions.
"I knew the answer did not lie in the two polarized baskets," Newkirk said. "That is the key to this case, where we’re trying not to force it into the basket of 'All Iowans are racists' or to place it in the basket that 'We blame the African-Americans for not being qualified,' but basically place it right in the middle where reality lies, where there is some negative association with race, where people should be more aware of them. We should always be responsible for it."