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Uncovering Racial Biases in Librarians and School Officials

A new study shows the inherent disadvantages faced by African Americans when dealing with members of the public sector.

It's been well documented that people with names like LaKeisha or DeShawn, which became popular among African Americans during the civil rights era, can face disadvantages in the job market.

But that's not the only place they are likely to bump up against conscious or unconscious biases. A recent study finds that a LaKeisha is much less likely to get a response when they contact public librarians or school district officials than, say, a Becky. And when they do, it's less likely to be polite.

The researchers looked into a range of public-sector institutions—from school districts and libraries to sheriff's offices, county officials, and even job center veteran representatives. They focused on these because they offer public services, like education, knowledge, safety, or employment, that help cities run and potentially help narrow racial and economic gaps in society. "A lot of these services have a human component," said Mirco Tonin, an economics professor at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy, who co-authored the report. "People are the main assets."

But what if these very people who were administering these services were helping exacerbate inequalities instead of shrinking them? To test this, Tonin and his colleagues collected all available email addresses of local service providers. There were around 19,000 accounts in total—half of the total number of providers in the United States at the time of the experiment. Then over two months in spring 2015, they sent them emails with questions, signing off with names that "strongly evoked" race.

They found that emails from "black-sounding" names (examples: "DeShawn Jackson" and "Tyrone Washington") were 4 percent less likely to get a response, compared to identical emails from senders perceived as white ("Greg Walsh" and "Jake Mueller.") The difference in response was particularly stark in emails to sheriff's offices, but also statistically significant in libraries and school districts.

The researchers also did a textual check—looking for markers of politeness, such as greetings and proper designations. The responses to emails thought to be from black people were less likely to contain such language. Finally, the researchers found a spatial discrepancy: The response gap was higher in the Midwest region—and in rural areas compared to urban ones. Via the report:

One possible interpretation is that this represents taste or prejudice-based discrimination, whereby responders may have an aversion to interacting with citizens with black-sounding names due to racially prejudicial attitudes or they may consider such citizens less worthy of their effort and attention.

To Jessamyn C. West, who has been working in and with libraries since the 1990s, this study got at the heart of a stubborn issue in librarianship. West currently teaches technology skills at a vocational high school in her small town of Randolph, in Central Vermont. Apart from that, she often delivers lectures and talks around the country on equity in librarianship—and is immersed in conversations on the topic online. She came upon Tonin et al.'s study in the sidebar of an article she was reading in the Library Journal, and was intrigued by the headline: Do librarians discriminate?

"As somebody who cares about social justice issues and diversity issues, on one hand, your knee-jerk response is like: 'Of course, they don't,'" she said. "And then your other knee-jerk response is: 'Of course, they do.'"

When she posted the study on Twitter, it got reactions. Some people were defensive and critical of the study's design, but not all. "I was heartened to see a lot of people being like: 'Hey, this isn't good. We should do better,'" she said.

The study's main strength is its vast and geographically diverse sample size. But there are also weaknesses. For one, email responses may not always give a true sense of how different racial groups access and experience these public services. Nevertheless, the study "is informative of an attitude," Tonin said. "I cannot prove it ... but I would find it extremely strange if a librarian will only be discriminatory in email and not in person."

So how do you fix this disparity? Tonin says the biases that inform this behavior may be unconscious—and the first step would be just to acknowledge them. "When you tell [the librarians], when the implicit becomes explicit, then it can be corrected," he said. Diversifying the labor force in local public institutions would be a big next step. The study found a relatively narrower response gap in the South—a region with a particular history of racism—likely because there is a larger share of the African-American population working in public-sector jobs.

"Librarianship is super white—and it's not always self-aware about that point," West said—a claim supported by the most recent diversity numbers for the industry. West recommends that instead of clucking disapprovingly at the study or shrugging it off altogether, that library professionals take it back to their offices and talk about solutions. Hiring diverse librarians, taking implicit bias tests, and being trained on cultural sensitivity could help ensure that every patron who comes into a public library—regardless of race, immigration status, ability, and mental health—is treated like a person.

"Saying something like, 'Well, I'm not a racist' is different than saying, 'Well, I'm an anti-racist—I actually work hard to combat racism,'" she said. "When you do that, you're challenging yourself to combat implicit assumptions you may have without even knowing about it."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.