A new study led by Sheen S. Levine, an adjunct research scholar in the sociology department at Columbia University and professor of management at the University of Texas, Dallas, shows that White Americans pay less attention to Black peers.
Dr. Levine observed that people in the business community “seemed earnestly interested in promoting diversity.” However, in his conversations with Black people in the workforce, he learned that they “felt welcome at the door,” but their ideas and accomplishments were often ignored. To test this lack of attention, Levine and his research team developed a model to measure people’s willingness to learn from others.
The researchers gave study participants, a group of gender-balanced Americans, a puzzle with the offer of a bonus if they answered correctly. Each participant was able to see how their peers, either White or Black, solved the same puzzle and could choose whether to learn from them. The only way to get the right answer was to use input from the peers, allowing the researchers to test whether participants were more likely to dismiss information from one racial group.
The researchers found that participants were 33 percent more likely to pay attention to and learn from White peers compared to Black ones; they also rated Black peers as less skilled than White peers.
“Leaders of organizations should pay attention to these findings in order to understand racial disparity in patterns of attention,” said David Stark a professor of sociology at Columbia University and a co-author of the study. “It’s in everyone’s interest that we find ways to remedy this ‘racial attention deficit’.”
“The authors of this paper have made a significant contribution to the social sciences by demonstrating behaviorally how and how much white people ignore, overlook, and underestimate Black people,” said Michèle Lamont, professor of sociology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University and former president of the American Sociological Association. “Their study of ‘recognition gaps’ explores new paths in our understanding of how inequality operates, which has everything to do with how everyday judgments of worth are omnipresent and make racism so hard to combat.”
The full study, “Racial Attention Deficit,” was published in the journal ScienceAdvances. It may be accessed here.