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March 17th, 2009
03:50 PM ET

How the recession is affecting racial diversity in the workplace

Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic

A good friend of mine is an associate at a white-shoe law firm that just went through a major round of layoffs.

Workplace diversity is very much on her mind now because during the job cuts at her firm, it became glaringly apparent that people of color were massively over-represented in the pink slips department. If there are additional personnel cuts, she now wonders if she - a woman of color herself - will be among the next to go.

The current recession is already dealing a severe blow to the scant progress that has been made regarding racial diversity in the workplace.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, blacks and Hispanics were twice as likely as whites to have reported being laid off or fired in the previous 12 months, about two-in-ten blacks (21%) and Hispanics (19%) versus one-in-ten (11%) among whites.

More African-American men are losing jobs than at any time since World War II, according to a report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

The trend is alarming. New research by Eden King, an assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University, suggests that workplace discrimination increases when people feel threatened by economic downturns.

According to King, "In good economic times, people know they are supposed to support diversity and will tend to hire a minority candidate to get affirmative action points. But when times are tough, people tend to look out for their own group and isolate outsiders, and that's when discrimination can begin to rear its ugly head."

The playing field has never been level, but this recession is likely to make things even worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, blacks and Hispanics of both genders already under-earn their white counterparts by two to three hundred dollars per week.

One of the arguments you often hear from organizations that are resistant to changing their recruiting tactics is this: "We're looking for the best candidate for the job. We shouldn't have to lower our standards to artificially boost diversity."

What's the unspoken assumption here? That people of color have sub-par qualifications and can’t possibly be among the "best candidates."

Unfortunately, this same assumption may be carried over to decisions about who gets laid off and who doesn't.

When you end up with situations like the one at my friend's law firm - where people of color are disproportionately affected by layoffs - you begin to understand the breadth, depth and width of the problem.

I suspect that this recession will soon lay bare which companies are truly committed to diversity, and which ones have just been saying what they thought people wanted to hear.

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Isabelle

    Those who say that they've been around in the past when layoffs occurred, and didn't witness decisions being based on race:

    The author isn't saying that this is something companies do outright necessarily. Racism is deeply ingrained in our society, and in the psyche of every person who was brought up in it A layoff decision may not necessarily be based on race consciously, but that doesn't mean that preconceived notions & stereotypes don't subconsciously affect people's decisions on who gets the boot or not.

    That's to say that they're not outright deciding to fire people because they are a certain race. If a deciding manager has the socially ingrained assumption that his minority employees are less educated, less hardworking, or any one of the common negative portrayals attributed to any race, it will affect his or her decisions on who gets laid off, whether (s)he realizes it or not.

    March 27, 2009 at 5:22 pm |
  2. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    When it comes to return on investments and profits--corporation are color blind when it comes to layoff--the only color that matters to them is "GREEN." You sound like an racist hustler--and I know a few of them.

    March 18, 2009 at 8:49 am |
  3. Phil, Heidelberg, Germany

    Everytime something happens when it comes time for layoffs, the people of color, cry, cry, cry discrimination, when this something happens to them. When it happens to the non-colored people, thats OK. Why don't the colored people grow up? Layoffs happen to people in general, not to the colored. If they are laid off, its because of low performance, which is normal, they have a tendency to perform this way, because they themselves feel they are above reproach. They have felt that the world owes them a living, instead of having to work for it. Get off your lazy ass and learn to perform to the high standards like the rest of us.

    March 18, 2009 at 8:11 am |
  4. Mr. Britt

    kaz-thats the smartest comment iv ever read on this shotty CNN blog.

    March 18, 2009 at 5:01 am |
  5. J.V.Hodgson

    MMMmmm, so much for racial equality and so called non-discrimination equal opportunity laws being effective.
    Take the next step guys and analyse the results in Democratic and Republican controlled states.
    Never mind, I think I know the answer and no reasonable person is going to like the answer. I could be wrong but think not!
    Regards,
    Hodgson.

    March 18, 2009 at 4:48 am |
  6. German R. Cayabyab, Jr.

    As we continue to face this challenging recession, let's all persevere but be patient and optimistic in bringing our best to resolve our issues. If one got laid off due to this economic crisis, then please don't stop in searching for job opportunities. Make sure to prove your prospective employers the advantages of hiring you.

    German R. C. Jr., East Palo Alto, California

    March 18, 2009 at 2:44 am |
  7. Martin Altizer

    Yeah, I hope the racist fools fire me over my permanent suntown...I can probably retire on the eventual judgement bennies from affirmative action.

    March 18, 2009 at 2:44 am |
  8. Wayne

    I am right there with you Kaz, It is disgusting how the black card is played for every thing,look at black history month,now that is as racist as you get !!!! what about the rest of us???? and yes,Obama is a mixed WHITE man!!!!

    March 18, 2009 at 1:41 am |
  9. Mike Syracuse, NY

    One has to wonder if the fact that whites tend to be more educated than blacks has been reflected in the statistics. Since the percentage of whites with advanced degrees is greater than that of minorities, why wouldn't their pay and desire of companies to retain them be higher as well? In most cities blacks drop out of highschool at greater than a 50% rate. How can you expect equality when there isn't the willingness to work at getting an education?

    March 18, 2009 at 1:40 am |
  10. Annie Kate

    I've been around at 3 companies (all Fortune 100 companies) when layouts happened and the criteria at all of them was not based on race but based on type of job and how needed it was, what project the people were working on and if it was going to be continued, date hired (last in first out), performance evaluations, as well as a whole host of other solid business reasons. None of them was based on race and a great many whites got laid off the same as people of color. The main thing was that if you did a great job for the company and they regarded you as a critical resource you were in the clear. Since I live in the South I would have expected the layoffs to have a hint of racism in them but they never did – in fact we whites felt like we were being targeted because we weren't a person of color.

    People need to quit fixating on racial issues and focus more on their performance and wowing their employers. If you do a good job, have vital knowledge of the business and its intricate workings, and do a better than expected job regularly you run less of a chance to be laid off and more of a chance of advancing. Of course once the cuts get deep enough no one is safe but having a reputation as a critical resource getting that next job is not that hard.

    March 17, 2009 at 11:51 pm |
  11. anita

    about 2 months ago i had an interview for a f/c bookkeeper in a restaurant, after 3 personal interviews with the owners, i noticed all the
    waiters were of latino heritage, office people were white, needless
    to say i didn't get hired, although i have over 20 years experiece as a f/c bookkeeper. this happen in palm desert california, white community, should i say more. i thought we were over racial issues, but i guess we're not. thinking back when i met the hiring personnel
    she shook my hand violently, unwomanly to me, as a woman i've
    never been shook by another woman as such, hints to me now.
    we need to talk about it to bring up in the open.

    March 17, 2009 at 11:37 pm |
  12. FRIENDOFCOURAGEOUSDR.STEFANLANKAs

    'Economic RECOVERY'... Racial DISCRIMINATION...
    The topic is EXTREMELY important.
    THE MYTH of the (so called) "HIV".

    Still certain ethnic discrimination...
    The USA are wasting MILLIONS AND MILLIONS on something INEXISTANT.

    Apart from two american Nobel Prize winners (Walter Gilbert and Kary Mullis), the main SCIENTIFICAL AUTHORITY who UNVEILS THE BIGGEST lie of our times, is the pioneer on discovering a marine virus ('EsV'). I mean, the German Doctor of Natural Science, Biologist, Molecular Biologist and... Virologist, Dr. STEFAN LANKA.

    Luc Montagnier recognized that he never had isolated any 'HIV' viru$$$. (1997; interview by Djamel Tahi; Paris, France).
    We must ask OURSELVES two main things:
    1) Why so vehemently defend something for which there are not only no proofs but also no necessity... and which has pushed millions of people into fear of a retroviral plague transmitted through sex and blood?
    2) Why do "HIV"-virologists never subject their "retroviruses" to the same generally accepted standard techniques of molecular biology as all other virologists and biologists do?

    Please, search on Google the name: STEFAN LANKA.
    Try to contact DR. STEFAN LANKA.
    He'll be extremely helpful!

    Thank you very much!
    A.-

    March 17, 2009 at 11:36 pm |
  13. FRIENDOFCOURAGEOUSDR.STEFANLANKAs

    'Economic RECOVERY'... Racial DISCRIMINATION...
    The topic is EXTREMELY important.
    THE MYTH of the (so called) "HIV".
    The USA are wasting MILLIONS AND MILLIONS on something INEXISTANT. I am not crazy.
    I am talking about the necessary recovery of our country (and the world). Apart from two american Nobel Prize winners (Walter Gilbert and Kary Mullis), the main SCIENTIFICAL AUTHORITY who UNVEILS THE BIGGEST lie of our times, is the pioneer on discovering a marine virus ('EsV'). I mean, the German Doctor of Natural Science, Biologist, Molecular Biologist and... Virologist, Dr. STEFAN LANKA.

    Luc Montagnier recognized that he never had isolated any 'HIV' viru$$$. (1997; interview by Djamel Tahi; Paris, France).
    We must ask OURSELVES two main things:
    1) Why so vehemently defend something for which there are not only no proofs but also no necessity... and which has pushed millions of people into fear of a retroviral plague transmitted through sex and blood?
    2) Why do "HIV"-virologists never subject their "retroviruses" to the same generally accepted standard techniques of molecular biology as all other virologists and biologists do?

    Please, search on Google the name: STEFAN LANKA.
    Try to contact DR. STEFAN LANKA.
    He'll be extremely helpful!

    Thank you very much!
    A.-

    March 17, 2009 at 11:18 pm |
  14. Colleen

    i am Eurasian. I was told I was not laid off because of the AMAZING and seriously he said AMAZING job I was doing....

    Let's just say I probably not in line with what a Mormon views as being an asset– mixed race, single and digital savvy (which he isn't.)

    I think race is still a huge issue and this article sadly highlights that when the chips are down, people take care of their own.

    March 17, 2009 at 5:48 pm |
  15. paulernestshow

    I am at least happy that CNN and observers are admitting this racial biases. It is inherent in our society and bold actions need to be taken to achieve race equality. Every government, local, state and federal, every institution directly or indirectly benefitting from public taxes, contracts, should submit themselves to a national equality commission, to be created, on a daily basis, to ensure fairness. The federal govenment and congress must take equity seriously in America. Just observing and reporting will not help, but it is worth appreciating.

    March 17, 2009 at 5:43 pm |
  16. Howard Woods Elk Grove,CA

    I have personally been affected by this practice in my work. I work in Information Technology field and had to go to school continuously to keep my job and be in the top 5% of my classes just to keep my job. I recently got laid off and noticed most who were getting the pink slips were people of color and those that did not were less qualified and even had half the education or experience which was white were being kept. When I entered this field many years ago it was the good old boys field and now has return to that with this extreme down turn in the economy.

    March 17, 2009 at 5:43 pm |
  17. kaz

    I am getting tired of this bs on race. they are over playing the race card
    Get over it. I am not afraid to speak my mind anymore. And when Obamas budget helps more blacks than whites because the percentage of blacks in the lower income bracket are higher should we complain about that.

    March 17, 2009 at 5:38 pm |
  18. Jill Pugh

    This statistics are disturbing, but match what I am hearing by way of potential clients calling my employment law practice. Thank you for calling attention to a very important issue which will still be affecting us long after the country pulled out of the recession!

    March 17, 2009 at 5:03 pm |
  19. DNDavis

    I actually experienced this at my workplace. There was a distinct issue with me and that of my administrative assistant (both of us being of color) from my manger's perspective. My admin was a well-dressed, articulate, hard-working young man, who needed some grooming, but not unprofessional and a definite asset. I, was the only one at the site with a Master's degree, and often gave insight to business decisions from my experience. Once when I told my manager that I wanted to go for my PhD, he looked at me in disbelief. We often experienced incidents that could be obviously deemed as racist in nature, but disregarded them. When the time came for job cuts, we were the first ones to be let go. Those that were obviously troublemakers, unproductive, and outwardly racist remained (and still remain) at the site.

    March 17, 2009 at 5:00 pm |
  20. Melissa

    You know what? Most of the people that worked there were probably also black.

    So to this I say...

    STOP OBSESSING OVER THE COLOR OF PEOPLES SKIN.

    Your complete obsession with "the black person is persecuted" is completely psychologically unhealthy. Thats all you ever post about on here.

    How is it affecting the work place? Not as much as you're trying to pretend it is so that you can feed your ego.

    March 17, 2009 at 4:38 pm |

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