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.
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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
soundoff (158 Responses)
  1. Dion Loyd

    What I saw on CNN was modern day slavery. The show aired in my opinion "House Negros" (light skinned black men) and "Field Negros" (Dark skinned black men). In Cnn's segment it appeared that if you were closer to white in color the more accepted and comfortable you are in white society. Cnn did interviews with successful light skinned black men and non-successful Dark skinned black men. Make no mistake this country is still run like a Plantation.

    July 25, 2008 at 9:06 am |
  2. Brian in Texas

    Until we as a people can only be classified on Job Applications as Americans or non-Americans, we will continue to see the injustice and inequalities in the hiring process for Afro-Americans in businesses, small and large. If we continue to believe false information about companies not having certain quotas on race in hiring, than we are fooling ourselves even more! I work in the Corporate industry and I see these things with my own eyes daily, but there has been no barrier that I couldn't overcome myself. We are American's, people, and when the Applications ask for that justification and only that justification, our qualifications will continue to be in second place. But let's not let these obstacles give us any reason for not trying or doing our best in all that we do. We still have more advantages than others have across the continent. If we can remember our blessings and that there will always be someone, somewhere, doing fair worse than ourselves, we will become more determined to succeed in this unequal place called America!

    July 25, 2008 at 4:16 am |
  3. Marcia Esq.

    i have faced this demon many times. because i went to a predominately white college for undergrad. and my name is not Lashonda or Vansheka...I would get called for interviews...and when I would show up you could see the color drain out of the white interviewers faces... I remember this distintly with Arthur and Anderson all of a sudden the position didn't exist anymore. So I thought that ok,,, maybe more education is the key... I obtained my JD. however, that meant I had more education than most of the supervisors that were interviewing... I finally passed the bar... and I am working for myself... because I still couldn't get an interview...
    a attorney who can't find a job..... wow... as don king would say... onlly in america....

    July 25, 2008 at 1:54 am |
  4. Javon

    I read the comment that the AMERICAN Sean wrote. I can only feel somewhat bad for your experience my AMERICAN brother. I am a young African American in the military and know all too well how frustrating your experince made you feel but i would invite you to consider this: while you may feel that you have EARNED such a prestigious degree and EARNED your right to compete in the work force imagine if you applied to 10 other jobs and your credentials weren't even considered becuase of your skin color and your percieved culture therefore being turned away 10 additional times. Then you have a SMALL idea of what it is like to be an Afro american in this country. Thats is not to say that it happens everywhere but it happens. Also you think that WE DON'T KNOW that we got that job that you were denied because they needed to even out the "colored atmosphere?" You think that makes us even more proud? All that is saying is whether we succeed or fail our SKIN COLOR will be a factor . Don't be upset Sean it's really not your fault or the black man that was hired over you. What happen to you is merely a domino effect of the decisions that were made out of ignorance and fear before you or me. This is still one of the greatest countries in the world jack and im still glad to be here.

    July 25, 2008 at 1:43 am |
  5. JACK

    I have hired hundreds of people, as an employer I am guilty of this disparity. I will admit to it. I always try to be as objective as possible when hiring and try not to take race into account but when you hire 10 white people and 2 of them wash out in the first month, you hire 10 Latin people and 2 of them wash out in the first month and you hire 10 Asian people and 2 of them wash out in the first month, then you hire 10 black people and 5 of the 10 don't cut it in the first month, for any number of reasons from not showing up on time, being rude to customers, being disrespectful to other co-workers, calling out sick, not being productive, after a while you become prejudice.(please don't imply that I think only black people do this, all people do this.) These numbers always seem to hold true which means 50% of the training money I put into African Americans becomes a loss on my books. Training employees is expensive and my gut reaction is to not lose money on hiring African Americans so that they can throw the opportunity back in my face and cost my bottom line. For the average hard working African American this just sucks and is unfair but why do I have to lose money in the name of being politically correct? I DON'T, THIS IS AMERICA. If I had had a more positive experience with any one group they undoubtedly would be hired more than another. If you think I am racist then too bad. I need to have a profitable business or else no one will have a job. I think feel good and PC correct Soledad and Anderson have very little concept of how a business is run and how expensive HR, hiring, and training is. When you have a razor thin bottom line, you do what you have to. Black America(those of you that suffer from people like me) if you don't like that reality then try to shame your brothers and sisters into changing their act instead of blaming it all on white people. It's dollars and SENSE!

    July 25, 2008 at 12:39 am |
  6. Aimee

    I am white and grew up in a middle-class family. I have the honor of saying my parents are still married to each other after 43 years. My brother and I both completed four years of college. My life experience could not be much further from that of many African-Americans, particularly the young men in this study. But I teach in a poor, rural school district. My students are from various racial backgrounds, but many are on government assistance of some sort. In our community, it is poverty and not race that is the critical factor holding people back. Uneducated parents have to work hard to earn a meager living. They have neither the time nor the know-how to help their children complete homework and school projects. Sometimes they do not see the value of education as the great equalizer. If more poor and minority students would realize that education gives you an avenue to wealth and power, then perhaps we could eventually arrive at a point where all Americans really have the same opportunities.

    July 25, 2008 at 12:26 am |
  7. Tallulah, La.

    We will get over "the black thing" when we are treated equally. How would you feel if your colleged educated white son was denied a job that was given to a Black felon?????????

    July 25, 2008 at 12:26 am |
  8. Kim

    WOW!! it's hard to get over "the black thing" when mainstream society doesn't provide balanced opportunities and the lack of opportunities are based on "the black thing." We honestly wish America would get over "the black thing" so everyone could be treated equally, judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. But unfortunately our nation has not gotten over the "the black thing"

    July 25, 2008 at 12:21 am |
  9. Tra

    I found this show to be an insult to the black men and black women. I felt that this is being boardcasted, because of Obama. America is just trying to make it appear, that all black men are a bad example. Is it, because America has a black man running to be America's next President? Let the records show, that theres always two sides to every story, and America does not consist of only black men doing bad. There are other races with the same issues. It's just that they are not as focused on. America stop watch the black man, because all other races aim to copy our black ways and styles. So, we must not be doing too bad as a black race. Black women stand by our black men, because America is watching our every move!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 25, 2008 at 12:01 am |
  10. Christian

    I came to the United States legally from France 20 years ago when my father was Ambassador of Central Africa to the US and the United Nations in the late 70s. I went to high school in Washington DC and graduated in 89. I studied Finance at Central State University, OH and graduated with a B.S. in Business Admin in 1993. While in college, I met an African American girl who eventually became my wife and mother of my now 16-year-old son.

    My first real job was with Navistar International in Chicago where I was an intern in their Executive Financial Development Program until my first divorce in 95. After moving back to Ohio in 1995, I worked for Lexis-Nexis in Software Testing then Computer Systems Technical Support until 2007.

    However despite being eligible, for the past fifteen (15) years I have been unable to adjust my status to permanent resident. My application has been filed with the INS for at least that long, without anything being done except for being bounced back and forth between offices. In retrospect, it seemed like a deliberate effort was being made to obstruct my path to citizenship. During the last 6 years I have contacted several members of congress from my district for help about this issue, but all was in vain.

    Last year, when I informed the immigration and naturalization services that my marital status had changed after 7 years of marriage; it took them one month to deny my application for adjustment. So here I am, starting this process all over again, this time without a valid driver's license, since I can no longer renew it without a valid work authorization or green card.

    I can only leave it to your imagination to assess the level of frustration and anger I have experienced over the years faced with such blatant injustice. This complete disregard for social justice by the INS has for fifteen (15) years affected my life but my son’s as well. I have deliberately been made into an administrative illegal alien. And today I am left without any protection in this country. I can’t drive, I can’t work, I can’t open a bank account etc…and am therefore left at the mercy of other’s charity.

    I feel it is vital that I share my story with the public so there will be a record of what has and is actually happening in my life, as I now believe public disclosure is my only protection. I will continue to fight for my rights to live free from blatant abuses of power and what I perceive to be targeted oppression. I will protect my family and myself, against any and all forms of persecution.

    July 24, 2008 at 11:23 pm |
  11. Marcus

    "Black in America" basically shows what's still going on with Black America. And tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    July 24, 2008 at 10:46 pm |
  12. William Muhammad

    The series on Black America was interesting. The story itself shows how racism affects Black America. White America seems to feel it can always choose our leaders. How can you have an honest discussion on the condition of Black America and not include the Honorable Louis Farrakhan?

    July 24, 2008 at 10:29 pm |
  13. Gloria

    I am a proud black woman who believe that I can accomplish any thing I set out to.I walk in my freedom, I do not wait for any one individual to give it to me. I will never give anyone that much power over me. I am tired of these type of programs being aired. They air without any solution, only to make the divide wider. Slavery was an awful thing, but we can not park there. I want the best for myself and "I" have to make it happen. I am not saying there is no racism it exist in all communities across this country, but I am saying that if ten tell me no I am going to keep trying. I am not a victim. I am part of the solution!

    July 24, 2008 at 10:06 pm |
  14. Keira Davis

    I just want to say I am glad that CNN aired this broadcast. I know Corey from the Black Men episode..I want to wish Corey and his family well and if they need anything, please contact me.


    July 24, 2008 at 9:45 pm |
  15. Disgusted

    This whole set of conversations is goofy. Get over the black thing.

    July 24, 2008 at 9:25 pm |
  16. Carlton STL

    I have seen exactly what you all are talking about first hand which I am very sure many have. Right now I am at a job that I have been at for at least 3 years which the turn around is very rapid. I have seen very qualified black males come through and not given a chance to really show there full skills level because of what I call that " Got to hire a few for the record" thing. I for one am very good at what I do and am I do believe the "TOKEN CHILD" here. Its not that I hope they would fire me, Its an I wish they would fire me thing. Take it from me these folks are something else....Its not just us blacks though I worked with Bosnians, Mexicans, and Phillipeanoes very good at what they do and they get the same. In and out for the record!

    July 24, 2008 at 8:11 pm |
  17. Sum Yung Gai

    My father has frequently felt the sting of this discrimination throughout his career, in myriad ways. Yes, things are better than they were 50 years ago, but as Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura on Star Trek) said about 8 years ago, "we've still got a long way to go." It's still true in 2008.

    Further, I see it more from white females than I do white men. That's right, white *women*. They've been shown to have a visceral, gut-level fear of black men in particular. Given the choice, a white woman typically would rather hire anything, even a red elephant, any day over a black man of virtually any status. And they will likewise hire another white woman over any black woman. I've seen it too often.


    July 24, 2008 at 7:51 pm |
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