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May 2, 2007

Bias in Evaluations

A new study finds racial bias in calling fouls on the basketball court in the NBA. Here is the NY Times characterization:
A coming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student says that, during the 13 seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players. Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong.
The NY Times quotes Yale Law Professor Ian Ayres (author of the brilliant book Pervasive Prejudice) on the study:
“I would be more surprised if it didn’t exist,” Mr. Ayres said of an implicit association bias in the N.B.A. “There’s a growing consensus that a large proportion of racialized decisions is not driven by any conscious race discrimination, but that it is often just driven by unconscious, or subconscious, attitudes. When you force people to make snap decisions, they often can’t keep themselves from subconsciously treating blacks different than whites, men different from women.”

Note that this study seems to reveal discrimination even conducted in the most public of settings--with high definition video cameras recording all movements amidst the scrutiny of millions of, often highly expert, independent fans.

Law professors, of course, are not immune to societal biases. Thankfully, most law school grading is conducted through blind-graded exams. Yet, there are a significant number of assessments that are not performed without knowledge of the student's identity. These include: seminars, legal practice courses, independent studies, and student participation components of grades.

What can be done to ameliorate the potential problem? I expect that education is an important component of the response. We should understand our own potentials for bias and seek to weed it out.

Anupam Chander

May 2, 2007 in Teaching -- pedagogy | Permalink

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