A few large, homogenous, pre-trained models undergird many machine learning systems — and often, these models contain harmful stereotypes learned from the internet. We investigate the bias transfer hypothesis: the theory that social biases (such as stereotypes) internalized by large language models during pre-training transfer into harmful task-specific behavior after fine-tuning. For two classification tasks, we find that reducing intrinsic bias with controlled interventions before fine-tuning does little to mitigate the classifier’s discriminatory behavior after fine-tuning. Regression analysis suggests that downstream disparities are better explained by biases in the fine-tuning dataset. Still, pre-training plays a role: simple alterations to co-occurrence rates in the fine-tuning dataset are ineffective when the model has been pre-trained. Our results encourage practitioners to focus more on dataset quality and context-specific harms.