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Standardizing Biases: Selection Devices and the Quantification of Race

Mon, August 14, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 515A


Racial inequality persists despite major advances in formal, legal racial equality. Scholars and policymakers argue that implicit bias and other forms of “new prejudice” combined with subjective organizational decision-making practices perpetuate racial inequality. The standardization of decision-making offers a potential solution, promising to eliminate the subjectivity that allows implicit bias to creep into consequential decisions. Drawing on research in science studies and law and society, we argue that standardization must be understood as a heterogeneous practice capable of producing very different outcomes depending on the manner in which it is accomplished and the organizational infrastructure surrounding its use. We compare “selection devices” – simple quantified tools for making allocation decisions – in three distinct contexts (undergraduate admissions, consumer credit, and child welfare) to highlight the complex relationships between race and standardization. In particular, we suggest that actuarial standardization practices, including those adopted with the intention of reducing racial inequality, tend to reinforce an unequal status quo by reconfiguring mutable social structures into immutable individual risk factors.