Will social science aid in discrimination case against blacks in Iowa?

March 20, 2012

A judge in Owa City, Iowa will soon decide whether to grant thousands of black employees and job applicants monetary damages for hiring practices used by every agency of Iowa state government that they say has disadvantaged them for decades.

The plaintiffs, up to 6,000 African-Americans, were passed over for state jobs and promotions dating back to 2003. The plaintiffs are not alleging that they faced overt racism or discriminatory hiring tests but rather their lawyers argue that managers subconsciously favored whites across state government, leaving blacks at a disadvantage in decisions over who got interviewed, hired and promoted.

During the month-long trial, plaintiff called experts who testified that blacks are hired at lower rates than whites with similar qualifications and receive less favorable evaluations and lower starting salaries. Similar discrimination cases, against local governments, have failed because proving broad bias is extraordinarily difficult. There are varying different factors that are considered and thus there are loopholes around the racial aspect. Experts say the case is the largest class-action lawsuit of its kind against an entire state government's civil service system, and tests a legal theory that social science and statistics alone can prove widespread discrimination.

University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald, said "The decision will be important. It will be certainly looked at outside of Iowa." The university's research found an inherent preference for whites over blacks, in up to 80 percent of test-takers and among many people who do not consider themselves racist.

In a brief submitted in December, the Plaintiffs' lawyers sought lost wages of about $67 million minus what they earned in the meantime. But in court documents, Plaintiff's attorney said it was even more important that Judge Robert Blink order changes in the way state officials train managers, screen candidates and track disparities in hiring. Judge Blink's impending decision could award damages and mandate the desired changes in state personnel policies or in the alternative, dismiss the case.

If this case is successful, this social science theory can potentially aid in other states who have failed to win discrimination cases.