There’s a Name for That: Persistent Injustice Effect

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It’s a simple idea, but one with widespread, high-stakes implications.

By Peter C. Baker

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(Illustration: Elias Stein)

Every so often, some high-profile event serves as a sharp reminder that America’s black and white citizens don’t always see eye to eye on questions of justice. Think Ferguson. Or, a little further back, the O.J. Simpson trial. We review the same evidence — but disagree about the extent to which injustice has occurred. In a clever 1998 study, the management specialists Martin Davidson and Raymond A. Friedman set out to investigate whether this perceptual gap manifests in less publicized, more day-to-day occurrences.

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A version of this story first appeared in the

September/October 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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Black and white participants were asked to consider a hypothetical case of an employee being treated poorly by his boss, then listen to the boss’ attempt to excuse what he’d done. Black participants who considered race as more central to their identity — and who were more likely to consider themselves personally affected by unfairness — tended to find the boss’ excuse less effective at mitigating their sense of injustice. Overall, black participants evaluating the fate of black employees were the least convinced by the excuse.

The study’s authors dubbed these patterns “persistent injustice effect”: the sensitivity demonstrated by historically persecuted or less-powerful groups to potential injustice against one of their own. It’s a simple idea, but one with widespread, high-stakes implications. Research has found a similar divergence of perceptions between men and women, and between black and white jurors. What’s more, perceiving workplace injustice correlates with a host of ailments, from depression to heart disease.

Davidson and Friedman’s experiment suggests a useful guiding principle: Avoiding these outcomes means figuring out how the world sounds through each other’s ears. Especially if you’re, say, a workplace manager from a relatively privileged background, you just might have to ask.

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