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Is racial discrimination a thing of the past?

ASK THIS | January 22, 2007

A Princeton sociologist does an experiment -- and finds that being black in America today is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding a job. (Journalists can test this out themselves, just like WCCO-TV in Minneapolis did.)

By Devah Pager

(Adapted by the author from her article in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.)

When former Seinfeld actor Michael Richards unleashed a racist tirade in a West Hollywood comedy club recently, the result was a blitz of media attention with commentators pondering the extent that deep-seated racist sentiments linger in the darkest corners of society. And yet as much as such episodes provide vivid illustration of persistent forms of racial bias, they also reinforce the notion that acts of discrimination in contemporary America are rare events committed by unusually malevolent actors.

Under more typical circumstances, discrimination in America appears to have all but disappeared. Indeed, the presence of prominent black personalities, athletes, actors, and politicians provides an image of an open door to opportunity for blacks, one no longer conditioned by the stigma of skin color. Dramatic cases of racists “caught in the act” may get extensive publicity, but the implication is that they represent extreme aberrations.

Indeed, public opinion favors the idea that discrimination is of vanishing importance, at least as a direct cause of present-day inequalities. The majority of white Americans believe that a black person today has the same chance at getting a job as an equally qualified white person, and only a third believe that discrimination is an important explanation for why blacks do worse than whites in income, housing, and jobs.

Have we conquered the problems of racial discrimination? Or have acts of discrimination become too subtle and covert for detection?

Debates about the contemporary relevance of discrimination have been difficult to resolve, in part because of the challenges in identifying, measuring, and documenting its presence or absence in all but extreme cases. In today’s society, discrimination is rarely something that can be observed explicitly.

To address these issues, I conducted an experiment investigating employment discrimination in 2001. In this experiment, I hired young men to pose as job applicants, assigning them resumes with equal levels of education and experience, and sending them to apply for real entry-level job openings all over Milwaukee. There were two teams, one white and one black. The two members of each team also alternated presenting information about a fictitious criminal record (a drug felony), which they “’fessed up to” on the application form. During six months of fieldwork, the two teams audited 350 employers, applying for a wide range of entry level jobs such as waiters, sales assistants, laborers, warehouse workers, couriers, and customer service representatives. The results of these studies were startling. Among those with no criminal record, white applicants were more than twice as likely to receive a callback relative to equally qualified black applicants. Even more troubling, whites with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black applicant with a clean background. Racial disparities have been documented in many contexts, but here, comparing the two job applicants side by side, we are confronted with a troubling reality: Being black in America today is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding a job.

The young black men posing as job applicants in this study were bright college kids, models of discipline and hard work; and yet, even in this best case scenario, these applicants were routinely overlooked simply on the basis of the color of their skin. The results of this study suggest that black men must work at least twice as hard as equally qualified whites simply to overcome the stigma of their skin color.

What is being done to combat discrimination? Unfortunately, very little enforcement exists for acts of discrimination at the point of hire. In 1997, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a plan to launch a series of pilot employment audits across the country to support a more proactive model of enforcement of antidiscrimination law. Congressional leadership, at that time controlled by Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, objected vehemently to this strategy of enforcement. According to Gingrich, “The use of testers not only causes innocent businesses to waste resources (interviewing candidates not interested in actual employment), but also puts a government agency in the business of entrapment. It assumes guilt where there has been no indication of discriminatory behavior.” That year’s budget appropriations bill provided funding for the EEOC conditional on eliminating of the use of testing.

Unlike the arena of housing discrimination, in which dozens of federally sponsored testing studies have taken place, the use of the audit methodology for both research and litigation in the area of employment discrimination has thus remained negligible. The ethical concerns raised by Gingrich are important and should not be dismissed out of hand. At the same time, in the absence of some form of proactive investigation, hiring discrimination remains extremely difficult to identify or address. Job applicants typically have too little information at their disposal to make credible claims, and employers can easily come up with reasonable post-hoc justifications for hiring decisions in individual cases. It is only through repeated observation of systematic hiring bias that discrimination at the early stages of the hiring process can be reliably identified and remedied.

Recently the EEOC has shown signs of renewed interest in pursuing a testing program. It remains to be seen whether, within the prevailing political climate, this preliminary agenda can be realized. It is insufficient to assume that competitive markets will themselves drive out discriminatory employers. In order to ensure equal opportunity for job seekers, more active protections must be in place.

The adequate enforcement of antidiscrimination laws represents a vital priority. At the same time, it is important to remember that the problems of discrimination cannot be eliminated through enforcement alone. Racial stereotypes, though often exaggerated distortions of reality, are fueled in part by real associations between race, crime, and incarceration. Tackling these social problems at their root—including inadequate schools, neighborhood instability, and a lack of employment opportunities—are likely to represent among the most far-reaching interventions. Long-term investments in the social and human capital development of minority youth could help both to reduce racial inequality and to eliminate bleak social realities that fuel contemporary racial stereotypes.

Posted by Jordan
10/12/2008, 03:08 PM

After years of having employers call excited about my resume only to be turned down upon interviewing I have finally initiated my first complaint of discrimination, only because I received a written rejection that stated they were unsure that I would be a "cultural fit" for the team. Now I worry that in my small industry I will face further employment discrimination based on the complaint.

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