August 9th, 2008
09:02 AM ET

Study: Black man and white felon – same chances for hire

Program Note: In the next installment of CNN's Black in America series, Soledad O'Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Watch encore presentation Saturday & Sunday, 8 p.m. ET

We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.

Editor's Note: Devah Pager is Associate Professor of Sociology and Faculty Associate of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University.

Devah Pager
Princeton University

Is racial discrimination a thing of the past?

Debates about the relevance of discrimination in today's society 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. Discrimination is rarely something that can be observed explicitly.

To address these issues, I recently conducted a series of experiments investigating employment discrimination. In these experiments, which took place in Milwaukee and New York City, 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 the city.

Team members also alternated presenting information about a fictitious criminal record (a drug felony), which they “fessed up to” on the application form. During nearly a year of fieldwork, teams of testers audited hundreds of 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. The adequate enforcement of antidiscrimination laws represents an 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.

Discrimination is not the only cause of contemporary racial discrimination, nor even the most important factor. But because it is usually so difficult to observe, it is easy to forget about altogether. It is important that we remain mindful of the realities of direct discrimination, so that those who are working hard to get ahead are given a fair break.

Filed under: Black in America • Devah Pager
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