Birthers and the black middle class

The original title of this post was “Do we live in a post-racial society?”

This video by Baratunde Thurston is all over the Internet.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a black professional person, and have to listen to Donald Trump and all the other malicious fools who have questioned President Obama’s birthright citizenship.  It means that, if you are black, you will always have to be on the defensive, no matter how high a station you attain in life, or what you achieve.

You can be the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, like Ursula Burns of Xerox Corp., and there will be broadcasters who will say you appointment to a Presidential Commission is an “affirmative action hire.”  You can be a respected scholar like Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, and a police officer can enter your home, insult you and engineer your arrest on trumped-up charges if you talk back.

Donald Trump’s questioning of President Obama’s birth certificate has been shown to be nonsense to anybody with a remnant of sanity.  But Trump, who evidently is without shame, is now raising the issue of whether he got into Harvard by means of affirmative action.  He of course has no evidence of any of this.  He is just raising questions, and, no matter how little basis there is for the questions, there will be people who take them seriously.

He is like the people of an earlier era who said that Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley couldn’t possibly have written the books that appeared under their name, that some white person must have written them instead.

I remember once, when I worked for the Democrat and Chronicle, I was assigned to write a feature article on what kind of Christmas presents adults were buying for their children that year.

One of the places I went was a computer game store, where I saw a well-dressed black man.  As I walked toward him I saw a look of acute distress, a kind of here-we-go-again look.  It didn’t take much insight for me to realize he must have had a lot of bad experiences with store managers and detectives.  I will always remember how pleased and relieved he looked when I identified myself as a newspaper reporter, and began to ask my questions.

As I say, I can’t imagine what it is like to be in that situation – to always have to be on guard, to always think you are being judged by hostile eyes.

This is not a phobia.  Racial discrimination against black people is a thing of the present, not just the past.  Black and white teams of testers in New York City that half the time employers will take a white man with a criminal record over an equally qualified black man with a clean record.  Other testers have shown that employers will chose someone with a standard white American name over someone with a typical African American name.  Other testers shown discrimination in lending.

I am not talking here about the legacy of slavery and segregation, although these things do affect the present.  I am not talking about socioeconomic factors or culture, although those things also matter.   I am talking about prejudice and discrimination in the here and now against black people based solely on their race.

Click on for the story of how the video was made.

Click on The Longest War for the comment of Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic.

In point of fact, every black parent I know is at war with their children in a way that white parents are not. I grew up in house where the history of race and racism was the air. But concurrent to that history was the deeply-held belief that American racism was never an excuse for cynicism, anti-intellectualism, thuggism or nihilism. My parents were [race] conscious. But when I was failing my way through school, I don’t recall them ever raising their clenched fists and exclaiming “Damn the white man.”

To the contrary, there was a deep-seated belief that educating yourself was essential, and that hard work ultimately prevails. Whatever their broader critiques, it was that essential faith that united them with the rest of the country. Preaching that faith is a lot easier when you have actual examples to point to. In terms of external examples (outside of the family) there are no better models, right now, than Barack and Michelle Obama. … … 

From the perspective of race, we [African-Americans] don’t object to people trying to defeat Obama. We don’t object to Hillary claiming he’s soft. We don’t object to McCain claiming he’s a celebrity. We don’t object to the GOP calling him a tax and spend liberal. We don’t even object to Mitt Romney aspiring to hang him. (We know what you meant, Mitt.)

But when broad sections of this country foolishly follow a carnival barker in the ugly tradition of attacking black citizenship rights, when pundits shriek  that Obama’s successes are simply the result of the misguided largess of white people, they undermine our most intimate war. They undermine the notion that someone familiar to that kid on the corner could legitimately reach the highest levels of the country, that someone like that kid’s Aunt could be the First Lady. They undermine this country’s social contract, and the “hard work pays” message of my parents. And to that we object.

For if they will not take as legitimate a magna cum laude from their highest institutions, if they will not accept a man who tells black kids to cut off the video games and study, who accedes to their absurd requests one week, and slays their demons the next, who will they accept? Who among us would they ever believe?

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Click on Black Privilege for more from Ta-Nehisi Coates. [Added 5/7/11]

Now, if you are a white person who thinks everything black people have got is the fruit of affirmative action, consider this.

In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Each was 23 years old, a local college student, bright and articulate.  They looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience.  From June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job site called “Jobnet,” applying for the same entry-level jobs as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers.  There was one obvious difference in each pair: one man was a former criminal and the other was not.

If this sounds like an experiment, that’s because it was.  Watching the explosive growth of the criminal justice system, fueled largely by ill-conceived “tough on crime” policies, sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they’d done their time—a process all but ignored by politicians and the judicial system.

So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs.  Then she recorded who got callbacks and who didn’t.  She soon discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off in employer responses—not entirely surprising.  But when Pager started separating out black applicants from white ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality and jobs to the core.

Pager’s white applicant without a criminal record had a 34 percent callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17 percent for her white applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black applicants were 14 percent and 5 percent.  And yes, you read that right: in Pager’s experiment, white job applicants with a criminal history got more callbacks than black applicants without one.  “I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some with race,” Pager says. “I certainly was not expecting that result, and it was quite a surprise.”

Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple’s sprawling market for entry-level jobs—once again, with one applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record.  (As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who posed as the ex-con.)  The results? Again Pager’s African-American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for ex-criminals: a drop off of 9 percentage points for whites, but 15 percentage points for blacks.  “Employers already reluctant to hire blacks,” Pager wrote, “appear particularly wary of blacks with known criminal histories.

Other research has supported her findings.  A 2001-2002 field experiment by academics from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, uncovered a sizeable gap in employer callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) versus black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal).  They also found that the benefits of a better resume were 30% greater for whites than blacks.

via  Mother Jones. [Added 7/5/11]

Click on White ex-cons get jobs faster than Blacks with no criminal record for a report on the experience of black and white job applicants in New York City.

Click on Study shows racial discrimination for evidence that people with typically white first names get hired faster than people with typically black first names.

Click on Overcoming Racial Discrimination for other studies of racial discrimination (scroll down for studies using paired black and white testers).

Click on Racial Discrimination in the U.S.: Evidence from the 2000 HUD Study for evidence of racial discrimination in housing using testers [Added 5/7/11]

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10 Responses to “Birthers and the black middle class”

  1. Unamused Says:

    You seem to be upset than any high-profile black person should be questioned in any way.

    Race quotas and affirmative action hires are ubiquitous; why should I believe any given black person deserves his or her station in life? What is the rational basis for that belief?

    Your take on the Gates debacle is ludicrous.


    • philebersole Says:

      I think criticism of high-profile public figures should be based on what they do or fail to do, not on their race or ethnicity.

      Barack Obama graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He went on to be elected U.S. Senator from Illinois, and then President, the latter against the opposition of the most powerful faction in the Democratic Party (the Clintons) and the most popular figure in the Republican Party (John McCain). It is ludicrous to suggest this is all because certain white liberals coddled black people.

      As it happens, I am not a supporter of race-based diversity and affirmative action. Such programs cloud the issue of racial discrimination as it exists in this country, they often fail to help the people they are intended to help, and they help the powers that be to divide and rule. At the same time, given the pervasiveness of racial prejudice in American society (as documented in the links), I do not obsess over the thought that some black people somewhere may be getting more than they strictly deserve.

      Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic Monthly questions race-based affirmative action, but, as he observed, if President Obama is a beneficiary of the policy, that would be a strong argument in favor.


  2. Unamused Says:

    I assume your ideas about criticizing high-profile public figures extends to white people and Republicans? How do you feel about the way George W. Bush was portrayed? A stupid Texan cowboy, a warmongering butcher, a chimpanzee… I think President Obama got off light: “Hey, so… your grandmother misspoke and said you were born in Africa. Why did you decide to wait years and years before releasing your birth certificate?” — some racist

    I do not buy into birther conspiracies for a second, but bear in mind that the President was born way out there in Hawaii, to a Kenyan father, and grew up in Indonesia with a whole bunch of Muslims. He also delayed the release of his actual birth certificate for years. In light of these facts, it is neither necessarily racist nor a sign of mental instability to harbor doubts about his patriotism and/or birthright citizenship. It’s just a little kooky.

    Barack Obama has stated that he benefited from affirmative action. His career trajectory certainly supports that statement. Now, I wasn’t actually talking about the President when I mentioned that AA diminishes black accomplishments by raising legitimate doubts about them, but it’s something to bear in mind. He got where he is today because of racial preferences. (I cannot imagine how that is a strong argument in favor. AA got us an inept President! Hurray…?)

    Based on your description of Obama’s presidential campaign, I have to conclude that you’re not one of the disillusioned Democrats who’s realized it was all smoke and mirrors, and the guy really has no experience doing anything except… well, getting promoted.

    We seem to agree on AA and forced diversity. We disagree on racial prejudice.

    First, disparate impact is not evidence of disparate treatment. Just because blacks and whites have different outcomes — in a job search, say — does not mean one group was a victim of racism. Blacks and whites are different in more ways than can be captured on a resume. Cultural differences alone will make white employers preferentially hire white applicants. Why wouldn’t they? Who are you going to get along with better?

    And who is more likely to win a multi-million dollar “discrimination” lawsuit if you fire them for cause? Seriously, how do you get rid of black people after you hire them? Another unintended side-effect of racial preferences.

    Regarding black names: if I had to choose between two equally qualified job applicants, and one of them had a “stereotypical” (i.e., ghetto) black name, I would choose the other one. Why? Cultural differences, again; and personal experience. Is that stereotyping? Yes. So is avoiding grizzly bears. I’m sure some of them don’t want to eat me, but life is about playing the odds. So no, I wouldn’t hire Lateesha. I would hire Jane.

    I dismiss the third study out of hand, based on this: “Women only [earn] 76.2 percent of what men earn…” That’s not true — they earn just as much or slightly more for the same work. The gender wage gap is a product of lazy thinking by researchers who already know what results they want in advance, and I have every reason to believe the racial wage gaps are too.

    Thanks for your response.


    • philebersole Says:

      You argue that there is no such thing as prejudice because black people and women are just naturally inferior. I think your comment supports the point I was making in my post.

      I think that when someone is running for President, the person’s college grades may be a (minor) indicator of the ability of the person to perform in office. Once the person is in office, you have a better indicator – the actual record. I think George W. Bush and Barack Obama should be judged on the basis of what they did, and failed to do, while in office. My opinion of Presidents Bush and Obama is irrelevant to the point we’re discussing, but if you are curious about this, call up my posts under the category “Obama” and “George W. Bush.”

      I don’t think you scrolled all the way down through the third link about proof of discrimination.


  3. Unamused Says:

    Hmm, I don’t recall saying anyone was inferior to anyone. In fact, I said that women make the same amount of money as men, or more.

    No, I didn’t look through the third link, because — as I said — they started out with the myth of gender wage gap. In short: why on Earth would I believe that “African American men still earn roughly 25 percent less than white men at the same education level,” when the authors so obviously failed to take into account that men and women choose to work different jobs, and have different aptitudes and attitudes? Blacks and whites also have different aptitudes and attitudes — this statement not to be confused with “black people are an inferior race and I want to gas them all to death” or whatever it is you think I said the first time.

    When anti-racists can show that they’re willing to approach these questions with an open mind instead of prejudging (hah) white people, then I’ll dredge through their “disparate impact, therefore disparate treatment” studies in detail.

    Until then, I am content simply to observe — to observe our colleges and universities, our sports and entertainment industries, our news media, our President. Then I ask myself: where’s the racism? Where are these horrible societal barriers erected by the white racists I’m told are all around me?

    I don’t buy it.


    • philebersole Says:

      Good point about the gender gap. You were not saying that women are inferior, and I withdraw that comment.

      But if you say that it is justifiable to arbitrarily reject someone with a typically African-American name for employment, what is that but a judgment that African-Americans are inferior?

      I have a smart, hard-working acquaintance who is up against the prejudice that you justify.

      President Obama did not delay the release of his official birth certificate. His official birth certificate, the one that is notarized and used as official proof of birth, was released during the campaign, and his supplemental long-form birth certificate was seen by many people, but not made public because of Hawaiian law. It is absurd that this matter was ever taken seriously.


  4. Unamused Says:

    I had two equally qualified candidates, and I was judging by their resumes and their names only (that’s the study’s scenario), then I would choose the one without the stereotypically black name. I wouldn’t think twice about someone named “Terrence,” who might very well turn out to be black.

    You say I reject them arbitrarily, but I have a reason: in my experience, people with that kind of name are probably lower-class (ghetto) blacks, and I wouldn’t get along with them at work. Spelling it out: the optimal work environment for me (a white person) would be with other white people, with whom I am most likely to share a culture, interests, and attitudes; followed by middle- and upper-class black people; followed by ghetto black people.

    I’m sure black people feel the same way with the races reversed. Freedom of association goes both ways.

    Yes, it is a prejudice… against names. In this scenario, I as the employer have to prejudge my potential future employees, based on resumes and names — if we’re following your study’s protocols. I don’t get to meet them. One way or another, prejudgment will occur. I can’t pretend that the extra piece of information (wait, her name is Precious?!) doesn’t exist.

    It’s too bad your acquaintance has a really, really black name; I guess he or she will have to make up for that in an interview. If my hypothetical application Lateesha showed up and impressed me, then my reasons would no longer be valid. That’s why I would hire her.

    As for the birthers, they are indeed nuts. I just don’t believe they hate all dark-skinned people.


    • philebersole Says:

      Actually, the situation in the study was this.

      You get requests for job interviews from two people, with apparently equal qualifications. One has an African-American sounding name; the other has a WASP
      sounding name. Your choice is to (1) invite both in for interviews, (2) invite neither in for interviews or (3) choose to invite one and not the other.


  5. Unamused Says:

    Alright, so I choose not to (probably) waste interview time on Lateesha and Shaniqua and Shanay. This is the kind of risk management we all do every day.

    “Should I buy a lottery ticket for a one-in-a-million chance of getting rich? No, because I’ll probably just be throwing money away.”

    “Should I save gas money by walking home through the bad [read: black] part of town? No, because it’s full of, er… diversity.”

    Making judgments based on incomplete information (prejudice) and based on statistics (stereotyping) is normal, natural… smart. That’s the “racism” you’ve uncovered. In an otherwise perfect world, I might give a shit. But in the world we live in, I’m rather more concerned with the way racially motivated black criminals insist on targeting white people for robbery, rape and murder. Sorry, Shanay.


    • philebersole Says:

      Here in Rochester, N.Y., many people of Italian descent have Anglo-Saxon names because George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Co. (who was a great man in many ways) would not hire Italian-Americans.

      I have Jewish friends of my generation (I’m 74) who were turned down for jobs because they had Jewish names or because they revealed they were Jewish.

      I don’t know what I would do in such a situation. I hope that, like the young African-American woman I mentioned, I would have enough self-respect, and respect for the memory of my parents, to stick with the name my parents gave me.


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