The other unemployment crisis

The current jobs recession affects almost all Americans.  Nearly 10 percent of us are unemployed, and a lot of us are staying employed only by putting together a patchwork of part-time and temporary jobs.  But as bad as it is for white workers, it is worse for white workers.   Unemployment among black workers is roughly twice as high as among white workers, as it has been for 60 years.

Being white, I prefer to think that this is because of neutral factors that just happen to affect black people on average more than white people.   But this isn’t so.  Andy Kroll, in an article in Mother Jones, examines these supposed neutral objective factors, and explodes them one by one.

  • The disappearance of manufacturing jobs from the inner cities, where African Americans are concentrated?  This may have been important once, but now the whole nation’s manufacturing base has been hollowed out.
  • Differences in the average educational level of black and white Americans?  The education gap has narrowed over the years, and so has the wage gap, but the jobs gap remains the same.
  • The fact that so many African Americans are in prison or have prison records?  That’s part of the story, but not all of it.  Studies using paired testers show that a white ex-convict has a better chance of getting a job than an equivalent black applicant with a clean record.

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 percent greater for whites than blacks.

Racial discrimination in employment is illegal under federal law.  But, as Kroll points out, the law has been ineffective, for good reason.  The people who are being discriminated against have to know they are being discriminated against, and in most cases they can’t know for sure.  Even if they do have a case, they have to show that discrimination is intentional.  This is virtually impossible to prove, and in many cases, the people who are acting out of prejudice don’t realize they are prejudiced.

Black workers who are members of labor unions have better protection than the average black worker.  An individual worker knows only his or her individual case.  A labor union has factual knowledge of how its entire membership is treated, and can draw conclusions from patterns.  An individual worker is too concerned with economic survival to have the time or resources to file complaints.  A labor union does have those resources.

Kroll thinks the government could help with public works and other jobs programs aimed at the currently unemployed.  Of course the more jobs there are for everybody, the more jobs there are for black people.  But he doesn’t really have a good answer, nor do I.  However, the first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it exists.

Click on What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk About Jobs for the whole Mother Jones article.

Click on The 60-Year Unemployment Scandal for a version of the article on the TomDispatch web site.

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