The NYT reports on what looks like a well-reasoned study on officiating bias in the NBA. I say well-reasoned mainly because Steven Levitt, who has become famous for applying tools of economics to such problems, seems to be comfortable with their approach. The key finding is that white refs call fouls on black players at a rate .12-.20 fouls per 48 minutes playing time higher than they do on white players [note that most players don't play a full 48 minutes per game, so the actual rate per player per game is less]. Black refs show the same tendency to call more fouls on whites, though the article omits this rate.
That's obviously a bummer -- we'd like to think that stuff never comes into play. However, I would like to offer this bit of perspective: Sixty years ago, black men were not allowed in the NBA. Today, black men in the NBA, along with folks like Tiger Woods, are among the highest salaried people in the world. In 60 years, we have gone from total exclusion to a measurable difference of about 1 foul called every 10 or so games played. That's pretty good progress.
My sense is that we make snap decisions about other people based on a wide range of physical attributes, including height, attractiveness, clothing, tattoos, piercings as well as visible racial characteristics (e.g. skin color) and race-related appearance choices (e.g. cornrows). It would be interesting to see where skin color falls against these other visible differentiators as a driver of third party decisions (e.g. whether to call a foul). My sense is that 60 years ago, skin color would be factor #1 and all these others would be orders of magnitude behind. Today? I don't know. While skin color hasn't gone away as an influencer, it may be falling into what we might call the "background level", less than or equal to some of these other effects. It would be interesting, for example, to make the same study on level of visible tattooing and the effect on foul calls. My sense is that this might be of the same order of magnitude today as skin color in affecting such snap decisions.