Still judged by the color of their skins

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech said he hoped that his children would be judged by the content of their characters and not the colors of their skins.

martin.luther.king.jrMore than 53 years later, this is still a dream.

As Michelle Alexander has written, mass incarceration of black Americans, many of them for drug offenses and other victim-less crimes, has provided an excuse to disenfranchise black voters in some states and deprive them of protection of civil rights laws everywhere.

As Greg Palast has documented, Republican state governments systematically cancel black and Hispanic voter registrations for bogus reasons.   And as Black Lives Matter points out, black people are sometimes killed by police or gun-toting whites without justification, with no consequences to the shooter.

And, as I have written before, old-fashioned racial discrimination in jobs and housing, which supposedly was outlawed under the civil rights laws, still exists today.  That is the main subject of this post.

Testers find that sellers, lenders and employers will favor the less qualified white person over the more qualified black person.

With all the talk nowadays of government favoritism toward African-Americans, I don’t think there is any rational white American who would want to trade places with them

Statistical disparities between races may have some non-racist explanation.  But the examples I’m going to mention, and which I listed in a previous post, are set up so as to rule out any non-racist explanation for the biases.

  • A group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania sent out 6,500 letters to professors at the top 250 universities in the USA.  The letters were identical except for the names of signers – Brad Anderson, LaToya Brown, Depak Patel, etc.  The white men got on average a 25 percent better response than white women or blacks, Hispanics or Asians, and that was true even when the professor was female, black, Hispanic or Asian.  Professors at private universities were more biased than those at public universities, the study found; the humanities professors showed the least bias; the business professors the most.
  • A sociologist at Northwestern University sent out four groups of testers in Milwaukee—whites and blacks, some of which listed criminal records on their job applications and some that didn’t, but otherwise were made to be as identical as possible.  The whites with criminal records had a higher chance of success than blacks with clean records.
  • racism-in-a-resume-92ebdafd521c4b23b83023db292f4f40Researchers for Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab sent out nearly 5,000 applications in response to more than 1,300 help-wanted ads.  They were divided into high- and low-quality applications, each with an equal number white- and black-sounding names.   The well-qualified whites got good responses, but the well-qualified blacks got 50 percent fewer.
  • Researchers at Harvard Business School found that white hosts were able to charge 12 percent more on average that black hosts for Airbnb rentals for virtually identical properties at similar locations.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development sent out 8,000 pairs of testers, one white and one black, Hispanic or Asian, to look for places to rent or buy in 28 cities.   More than half the time, they were treated the same, which is good.   But in many cases, the minority potential renter or buyer was asked to pay more, shown fewer units and/or charged higher fees than the white renter who had come by a few hours before.
  • The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston sent out pairs of testers to buy houses in eastern Massachusetts.  They, too, found that black and Hispanic buyers were on average charged more and offered less than white buyers.

The evidence shows that black Americans and other minorities compete on a playing field that is tilted against them.  Now you could say that represents progress of a sort.  In Dr. King’s day, African-Americans were barred by custom and sometimes by law from even getting on the playing field.

White racism was loud and proud in the USA of 50 and 60 years ago.   Now racial prejudice is concealed and often unconscious.  You could say that this, too, represents progress of a sort, although I would never have the nerve to tell a black American that he or she should feel satisfied or grateful.

Some of us white people think the playing field is tilted the other way—against us.   There may be individual instances in which a white person is treated unfairly because of race, but no rational white American would want to trade places with a similarly-situated black American.

We in the USA are still a long way from Dr. King’s dream.   We need to remember that.


What, To the Black American, Is Martin Luther King Day? by Chris LeBron, assistant professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Yale University, for The New York Times.  The title of this article / talk is based on the title of a speech by Frederick Douglass.

Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist? by Nicholas Kristof for The New York Times.

Five Studies That Prove Racism Is Still Way Worse Than We Think by the staff of   Example No. 3 misquotes a linked article, but there is good information here, presented in a highly readable way.

It Pays to be White by Jeanette Wicks-Lim for Dollars & Sense.

Evidence of Racial, Gender Biases Found in Faculty Mentoring by Shankar Vedantam of National Public Radio.

Digital Discrimination: The Case of by Benjamin G. Edelman and Michael Luca for HBS Working Knowledge.

Discrimination in Housing Against Nonwhites Persists Quietly, U.S. Study Finds by Shaila Dewan for The New York Times.

Racial discrimination continues to play a part in hiring decisions by Lee Price for the Economic Policy Institute.

1968-Present: Housing Discrimination Today Evidence of Racial, Gender Biases by the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.

Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan for the Abdul Jameel Lateef Poverty Action Lab.

Think you’re not racist?  Research uncovers our secret prejudices and ways to overcome them by Alice G. Walton for Chicago Booth Review.

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