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Racial bias: racist patterns in our brains

Racial bias describes the (unconscious) discrimination of people on the basis of their skin color, ethnic origin, religion or other characteristics on the basis of which racialization takes place. Racial bias is explained below and some current research results for the German labor market are mentioned. 

Racism: the name on the CV


In a field experiment on the causes of labor market discrimination, the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) sent 1000 applications from fictitious people to real job advertisements - throughout Germany and across eight occupational groups (1). While the CV sent out was always the same, individual variables were changed. These were, for example, ethnicity, phenotypical appearance (based on the application photo) and religious affiliation, which was explicitly stated in the CV. 

The result: applicants with a migration background were discriminated against compared to applicants without a migration background. The extent of unequal treatment varied: applicants with a migration background in Southern Europe and East Asia were discriminated against significantly less than other applicants with a migration background. Black applicants and Muslims were discriminated against particularly frequently. The level of discrimination was measured in this study using the response rate. In all groups, applicants with a "German" name received the most positive feedback. 

This study by the WZB thus confirms previous studies of this kind from the USA. In 2008, for example, it was investigated how many responses two test groups received to their applications sent out in Boston/Chicago. The research design was similar to the WZB study: the CVS was also completely identical here, except for the first names of the people. It turned out that people with Western and European names had to send out an average of ten applications to receive a callback. People with names attributed to Black people had to send out 50 percent more applications for the same result (2). 

When racist thought patterns are stuck in people's heads

Forms of unconscious bias, and therefore also racial bias, are socialized and grow out of social structures. We are often influenced by sexist, racist or classist narratives, usually without realizing it; the list goes on. As a result, our perceptions, the decisions we make and the judgments we make are distorted. What we have learned at school, which films, advertising, books, music or news we have consumed, which norms our family has taught us - our world view is a product of all these influences. 

Racial bias: racist patterns in our brains
Racial bias can manifest in any interaction as it is based on socialized belief systems.

Racial bias: racist patterns in our brains

Racial bias is very well researched, especially in the USA; the growing body of studies has contributed significantly to legitimizing the need for so-called "affirmative actions", which are intended to promote People of Color and Black people in the light of unequal conditions. Those who take a closer look at racial bias and its impact understand that far more deliberate action is needed to eliminate toxic beliefs and bring about fair decision-making processes. Racist thought patterns and biases inscribed in institutions can only be tackled proactively. 

Racial bias: a problem in Germany and beyond

It is important to recognize that racism is also a problem here in Germany, not just in the USA. Despite more and more studies on labor market discrimination and the powerful voices of activists, many do not want to admit that people in Germany are structurally disadvantaged because of their skin color and (presumed) ethnic origin. Racism does not necessarily have to have malicious intent - racial bias also takes effect unconsciously. Anyone who has grown up in a racist society and has encountered, for example, low representation of Black people, has internalized corresponding thought patterns. Becoming aware of these and discarding them is work. And many people prefer to look the other way instead of tackling racist patterns in our brains.

Ignorance of the topic is expressed, for example, in the scandalous "Ethnicity Data Gap". For example, we know how few women are present on German boards of directors. However, we do not know how few women of color sit on German boards. Why is this important? To measure intersectional forms of discrimination and develop strategies to combat them. One thing is certain: anyone affected by racism doesn't need studies to know that Black people and People of Color in Germany face obstacles. Taking their stories, perspectives and experiences seriously and not dismissing them as isolated cases should be a matter of course - even in the workplace.

We particularly recommend the very accessible works of Ogette Tupoka (3) and Alice Hasters (4), who both speak and write about the structural dimension of racism in Germany. Their works are not only available as books, but also as podcasts - they contain many points of reference for thinking about racial bias in ourselves and in the systems in which we navigate. The connection to the context of work is obvious. Ogette Tupoka also offers training specifically on the topic of critical thinking about racism.

(1) Ruud Koopmans/ Susanne Veit /Ruta Yemane 2018: Ethnische Hierarchien in der Bewerberauswahl: Ein Feldexperiment zu den Ursachen von Arbeitsmarktdiskriminierung. Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB).

(2) Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004). Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination

(3) Ogette Tupoka (2017). Exit Racism - Rassismuskritisch denken lernen

(4) Alice Hasters (2019). Was weiße Menschen nicht über Rassismus hören wollen aber wissen sollten


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