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Expert: How unconscious bias keeps people from advancing economically

FILE: Former Associate Vice President for diversity equity and inclusion at Westminster College, Marco Barker speaks to the group as members of the Sugar House and Westminster community join in solidarity on issues and matters related to justice, unity and diversity at a rally and march on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. Barker now serves as Vice-Chancellor for diversity and inclusion at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Since the police killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained a lot of traction and media attention. While the movement tackles police brutality, it also focuses on racial inequality like housing and income disparity. 

At its core, Black Lives Matter challenges the status quo, which is steeped in unconscious bias, according to Marco Barker, the Vice-Chancellor for diversity and inclusion at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

“There is a history, and data shows us that our disparities indicate lesser value or less attention to Black lives,” Barker told Heather Kelly on the Money Making Sense show. “Whether it be from schooling to policing, to hiring, to employment, social factors, health factors.” 

The reason for this, according to Baker, is because of systemic inequalities through both direct and indirect bias. 

For example, according to one group tracking deadly use of force nationwide, Black people make up 1.06% of Utah’s population but 10% of police killings in the state. Additionally, as white unemployment continues to decrease since the start of the pandemic, the Black unemployment rate has remained around 16.8%, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

And it’s just not racial groups that experience these disparities. Groups that are considered the minorities by those in power, including women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and those with disabilities face similar setbacks. 

Barker says anyone in a position of power has the ability to limit opportunities for others not in power, whether they recognize it or not.  

 

Understanding prejudices and unconscious bias

First, Barker acknowledges that everyone holds prejudices — it’s impossible not to have some unconscious bias. But pre-convinced assumptions have unintended consequences, he said. 

“Prejudices are just thoughts, stereotypes, what values, what’s the norm,” said Baker. “And those beliefs play a role in how society is constructed.” 

Barker notes that prejudices stem from our personal point of reference and how we understand people different from ourselves. 

Kelly mentioned how early heart disease research focused on white men, but not women or people of color. Barker said this comes from people not knowing or not caring how their decisions shape others’ lives.  

“Our biases absolutely can lead to racist attitudes and actions,” stated Barker. “That we either consciously or unconsciously realize we are doing.”

And part of the reason why we have these biases is due to our exposure and messaging, he said. How and what we learn can shape our reality and our perception of others.  

“The messaging of who people are based on public perception shapes how people are treated in everyday life,” explained Barker. 

“Have you had teachers of color growing up? Or teachers that were Indigenous? Or what did you learn in history class?” asked Barker. “All these are messages relayed who someone is.” 

The role of gatekeeping in the economy 

Gatekeeping, Barker says, is the act of those in power controlling who has access to something and why. And America has a long history with gatekeeping.

Barker pointed to the woman’s suffrage movement as an example. 

“That was a time when those who were in power, primarily white men, decided it was now okay to give women access to the vote. It wasn’t always like that,” Barker explained. 

However, even then, only white women were granted the right to vote; women of color were not given the same liberty. 

While this may not always be intentional, the prejudices powerful people hold can limit those not in power from ever rising to the top — especially in the workplace, according to Barker. 

If enough people believe the same prejudices and are in a place of decision making, Barker says it begins to create a system where that bais ideology can be practiced and implemented. 

Specifically, Barker describes the subtle biases that keep people from advancing in the workplace.

“Research shows when employers are looking at hiring or promotions, often those who may have attended a historically Black college or a tribal college get overlooked by those who do not,” explained Barker. 

Barker also said studies show companies are more likely to skip over applicants with ethnic names compared to applicants with western names. 

He said companies usually justify decision-making based on the unconscious bias because of preconceived notions about the applicant.

The lack of reflection on gatekeepers has irreversible impacts, according to Barker.  

“Those who have power, and authority, and control over institutions, really have a huge responsibility to step back and go “this gatekeeping has led to disparities, it has led to death,” Barker said. 

Power to those climbing the ladder 

Barker knows undoing centuries’ worth of discrimination and prejudices isn’t going to happen overnight. But he believes the Black Lives Matter movement is headed in that direction. People in power are being faced with hard questions as members of the public demand answers.  

“It’s in the hands of those in power to start facilitating change and asking what should we be doing differently,” said Barker. 

A start, according to Barker, would be for gatekeepers to recognize what they’re doing and make it a priority to change the behavior.  

“What we have to understand is that different people, different identities, different communities, have different experiences and different needs,” said Barker.