Deep Background

A lesson in avoiding racial bias in background screening

The U.S. Census Bureau is taking steps to prevent racial bias in the hiring of hundreds of thousands of census-takers in the upcoming 2020 poll of Americans, after a six-year class-action lawsuit unearthed what plaintiffs’ lawyers called unfair screening practices.

As part of the 2016 settlement of the lawsuit, the Census will redraw how it does background screening into job applicants’ criminal histories. The agency also will pay $15 million that in part will fund a Cornell University labor-relations institute to help applicants locate their criminal records. Cornell’s International Labor Relations school has for years done research on lowering barriers to employment for people with criminal records.

Civil-rights attorneys filed suit in 2010 alleging that the Census violated the rights of hundreds of thousands of black and Latino applicants by requiring that job seekers provide official copies of criminal records within 30 days. Many ended their applications when they couldn’t find the paperwork in time. Many others found that the federal databases the Census used failed to distinguish between charges and convictions, or contained other inaccurate information. Moreover, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said the agency should not take into account old convictions for minor non-violent crimes that arguably do not bear on the work census takers do.

The federal judge in Manhattan who heard the case certified a class of 400,000 black and Latino applicants who potentially suffered bias because of the agency’s practices. One of the plaintiffs’ underlying points was that minorities are arrested at a higher rate than whites, and that minorities suffered disproportionately in being denied the $17-an-hour Census jobs.

In the settlement approved by the judge in late 2016, the agency did not acknowledge any impropriety.

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