In a case closely watched by civil rights activists, an Iowa judge will soon decide whether to grant thousands of black employees and job applicants monetary damages for hiring practices used by Iowa state government that they say have disadvantaged them.
Experts say the case is the largest class-action lawsuit of its kind against an entire state government’s civil service system, and tests a legal theory that social science and statistics alone can prove widespread discrimination.
The plaintiffs — up to 6,000 African-Americans passed over for state jobs and promotions dating back to 2003 — do not say they faced overt racism or discriminatory hiring tests in Iowa, a state that is 91 percent white. Instead, their lawyers argue that managers subconsciously favored whites across state government, leaving blacks at a disadvantage in decisions over who got interviewed, hired and promoted.
Judge Robert Blink’s decision, expected in coming weeks, could award damages and mandate changes in state personnel policies or dismiss a case that represents a growing front of discrimination litigation.
“Whenever there is a case like this that goes to trial, it’s of interest to all of us,” said Jocelyn Larkin, executive director of the Impact Fund, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit that supports employment discrimination lawsuits and has followed the case.
Similar cases against local governments have failed because proving broad bias is extraordinarily difficult, with a myriad of possible factors to explain disparities, said David Friedland, a California human resources consultant who is an expert on discrimination in hiring. Success in Iowa could encourage similar lawsuits elsewhere, he said.
University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald, an expert on implicit bias who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, said the decision will be important nationally because similar cases against corporations have usually been dismissed or settled before trial.
Scholars and employment lawyers have shown a growing interest in implicit bias in the last several years, after Greenwald and other scientists developed the Implicit Association Test to test racial stereotypes. Their research found an inherent preference for whites over blacks — in up to 80 percent of test-takers and among many people who do not consider themselves racist.
The theory hit a legal obstacle last year when the U.S. Supreme Court disqualified a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart’s pay and promotion practices for women. The court found the class was too broad and failed to challenge a specific hiring practice as discriminatory.
Source: Times Union | RYAN J. FOLEY, Associated Press