ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Deadly confrontations between police officers and unarmed African-American men and boys have raised troubling questions in recent months. Among them is whether a fear of black men fuels racial disparities throughout society. NPR's Michel Martin has been taking a close look at that issue.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: It's an open secret among African-American men and boys that people are often afraid of them. Ways to deal with this are discussed among family and friends. But today we're focusing on research about how that fear may influence law enforcement and potential employers. We called Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University who has studied the way race can affect hiring. UCLA social psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff also joined us. He's researched how police officers view even very young African-American boys, and I began our conversation by asking about his findings.
PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: What we found was consistent with the previous research that showed that there was an age overestimation of black children. And to some degree, we think it has to do with a lack of familiarity. To some degree, it has to do with these implicit associations we have between black and something sometimes less than human. But what it definitely has to do with is a lack of the full visibility of the humanity of black people from cradle to grave.
MARTIN: You know, we invited our social media followers to tell us whether they ever felt afraid of the presence of African-American men, or - if they were black men themselves - if they felt that they had experienced this fear themselves. We heard from quite a few black men in this callout. We also heard from a number of white women who reported on their experiences. I just want to play one clip from a woman named Angela Dryden. And she says that years ago she was mugged by a group of young black men, and this is how she says this followed her years later into a new neighborhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANGELA DRYDEN: It was Valentine's Day, and I noticed three young black men were, you know, walking behind me. And it reminded me of the mugging scene. And I didn't want to cross the street because there were three young black men walking the same direction as I was, but it was having an effect on my physiology. I started to shake, and my heart was beating. But I kept walking, and they slowly kind of walked around me, and one of the young men turned round and said, hey, lady. And I said, yes? You know, and it croaks out of my mouth because I was totally desiccated from the terror. And he said happy Valentine's Day.
MARTIN: Professor Goff, how do you respond to that?
GOFF: I mean, you have to feel for this woman who's having a very human experience, and yet she's self-aware enough to understand that if she crosses the street, she's playing into a role that she finds anathema to her own values. I think that's a situation that many people in America find themselves in where they have these sort of bad facts about racial disparities. They know the rate of criminal activity is higher in black communities. They know educational achievement is lower, and yet they don't want to be a person who thinks that about an individual. And so that's kind of the conundrum we find ourselves in in trying to find better language to get ourselves out of.
MARTIN: So Professor Holzer, you have long been interested in the question of how race plays out in the labor markets. From your research, do you think fear plays a role in hiring decisions - particularly race-based fears?
HARRY HOLZER: I think it does, and I think it's fear of several different things. I think employers, first of all, worry about weaker performance of black males relative to black women, relative to other groups. And if their performance is weaker, then along with that they might fear more quits, more discharges, needs to discipline employees.
Then a second fear, I think, comes in. There's the fear of conflict, which can be verbal. It can be physical. It could be anything. And then finally - and I think this is a bit of an irony - EEO law. EEO stands for equal employment opportunity law which forbids discrimination in the workplace. It hasn't eliminated it, but it's reduced it. I think EEO law plays a funny role in all of this because most suits for discrimination in the workplace are for wrongful termination and wrongful denial of promotion, which means many small, white employers fear that if they have to discipline a black male employee and maybe even discharge them, that there's a bigger chance that they'll be sued for that than if they turn them away at the gate.
MARTIN: (Unintelligible) that we heard from quite a few black men in our callout, including Leo Cunningham. He's an ordained minister in Columbus, Ohio, and he told us that he has personally experienced potential employers becoming cold to him - in this case, that would be churches - when they found out that he's black.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LEO CUNNINGHAM: To have someone look at you and say, your two master's degrees, your undergraduate degree, your previous experience - it doesn't matter if we as Christians think that you are called and ordained by God to be a pastoral leader. The color of your skin prohibits us from wanting to hear anything you have to say about God or our community. That's a gut punch.
MARTIN: What about that, Professor Holzer?
HOLZER: That's bias. That's bias and fear and perhaps fear of the unknown. And there are, in the background of this whole story, a troubling set of statistics that people keep in their heads - lower achievement among black males than almost any other group even if they have the same educational attainment, more behavioral problems in school, lower employment activity, more crime. Now, it's unfair for those facts to be applied to any particular individual, especially an individual with strong credentials.
MARTIN: Professor Goff, what about you? What do you think?
GOFF: Well, I mean, in terms of the labor economy, I think that when you get past counting - so diversity for so long has been about just making sure the numbers are right. But when you get past counting, it's not a done deal. You have to set up a workplace so that people feel safe in their identity, and that's not just a touchy-feely Kumbaya thing. It actually affects people's capacity to do their best.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Why do you have to set up an environment where people feel safe in their identity? Some people would say, no I don't. I just have to set up an environment where people will get the job done. They get paid and go home.
GOFF: That - right. I don't care about your identity.
GOFF: You do that on your own. You take that home with you. It turns out that that's not a very successful strategy for employers, for educators or anybody else who's interested in having a diverse team do well. And the reason is because we all walk around with concerns about how we're going to be evaluated. That's a human thing. There's - you're not paranoid or neurotic because you're thinking it.
But people who come from groups that have stigmas about them - and we all do - when that stigma is relevant, then it can consume your ability to do anything else. So what then happens is they're spending time having to deal - having to negotiate with it, right? And that's time they're not spending focusing on the task. They're not able to do nearly as well, and part of the reason is 'cause the work environment feels hostile through no direct animus. No one's using racial epithets or using sexual slurs, and yet the environment ends up making people sort of focus on concerns about their identity to the exclusion of doing their work in an excellent way.
MARTIN: Given, though, Professor Holzer, that most hiring managers, I think it's fair to say, are still white males, the question that comes up for me is are the right people invested in asking themselves these questions?
HOLZER: Well, I'd say two things. First of all, the number of managers who are not white males is certainly growing. A lot more white females are showing up in those jobs, a lot more minorities. And the ray of hope - the real ray of hope on all of this is that as the American customer base becomes more diverse, more and more owners of those businesses and more managers whose performance is judged, for instance, by sales to those groups are going to see that they have a real interest in trying to deal with this. And so hopefully they will have an incentive to overcome some of those negative stereotypes that they've walked into the room with.
MARTIN: Harry Holzer is a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution which is a research institute in Washington, D.C. Phillip Atiba Goff is the president of the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA and a visiting scholar at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
GOFF: Thank you.
HOLZER: Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.