My dad, who passed away earlier this year, once told me a story about looking for work. Dad moved to Michigan in the early 50s to find work in the auto plants, but before he did that, he and some relatives drove from his native Louisiana to the Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Illinois. They had heard jobs were available and went to apply. When they got there, they were told the plant had no jobs- translation: there were no jobs for black people. So, Dad never got a job at Caterpillar, but did get a job at Buick where he worked for nearly 40 years.
Flash forward to the late 1980s. I’m in my junior year of college at Michigan State University. I had heard from a friend that the college newspaper was in need of copy editors, so I went down to apply. I was told by the editor himself that there were no jobs available. When I told my friend, she was surprised since she was told they really needed more copy editors.
In the wake of all the concern about how African Americans are treated by the police, there is another issue that doesn’t get the attention that the police conduct issue gets and that’s in the area of employment. While separated by decades, my Dad and I faced some of the same challenges; that of being judge by the color of your skin instead of your talents. The judging is not as blantant as it was for my Dad, but it is there all the same. It’s something that millions of African Americans have dealt with when it comes to finding and keeping a job.
A recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows that a college degree is not necessarily a ticket to prosperity for African Americans and Hispanics:
A college degree has long been recognized as a great equalizer, a path for minorities to help bridge the economic chasm that separates them from whites. But the report, scheduled to be released on Monday, raises troubling questions about the ability of a college education to narrow the racial and ethnic wealth gap.
“Higher education alone cannot level the playing field,” the report concludes.
Economists emphasize that college-educated blacks and Hispanics over all earn significantly more and are in a better position to accumulate wealth than blacks and Hispanics who do not get degrees. Graduates’ median family income in 2013 was at least twice as high, and their median family wealth (which includes resources like a home, car and retirement account) was 3.5 to 4 times greater than that of nongraduates.
But while these college grads had more assets, they suffered disproportionately during periods of financial trouble.
From 1992 to 2013, the median net worth of blacks who finished college dropped nearly 56 percent (adjusted for inflation). By comparison, the median net worth of whites with college degrees rose about 86 percent over the same period, which included three recessions — including the severe downturn of 2007 through 2009, with its devastating effect on home prices in many parts of the country. Asian graduates did even better, gaining nearly 90 percent.
Finding and keeping work has always been a challenge for me. It’s not that I don’t have the skills. After years of feeling that I was just too dumb to get a job, I’ve started to see that my skills in communications, web and graphic design are pretty good. But over the last few years, I’ve had to go through two layoffs and they have made me think more about the role of race in employment. The first time was when I working at the regional office of a mainline Protestant denomination. I had been their communications/IT person for six years. There was a budget shortfall and among the cost saving measures was the elimination of my position. You should know I was the only person of color on staff. Despite some concerns from people, the position was terminated and I was looking for another job. That came with a siminlar position at a local Methodist church. This time I had my husband looking out for me. I had that job for a year and then two days before Christmas I was told again because of budget issues, that my position was terminated.
I can’t say for a fact that these decisions were racist. I can say that in both positions I added value to the organization. I pushed boundaries, started new initiatives and brought hightened visibility to the organization. None of that protected me from being let go. Meanwhile in some cases, people who produced less (and were white) were saved from the chopping block.
In both cases, I probably stayed longer than I should, even as I saw dark clouds because I knew it would be hard to find another job easily.
There is no smoking gun here. No one said “let’s go after the black guy.” But in both cases I’ve been left wondering. It becomes one of what I like to call “Is it racist or is it Memorex” moment.
Was there some unconscious bias? I don’t know. I can’t say yes, but I can’t rule it out either. The same goes to all those meetings with a friend of a friend about jobs. You give them your resume and you don’t hear back. Was there unconscious bias there as well? I don’t know. All I do know is that I’ve tried all the suggestions people give in job hunts and while I see others (who are white) trying it and having it work, it doesn’t work for me.
My own belief is that there is an implicit bias at work. It’s not intentional, but it is there and it has consquences. Harvard sociologist Sendhil Mullainathan notes the many ways bias appears in the lives of African Americans:
In a 2009 study, Devah Pager, Bruce Western and Bart Bonikowski, all now sociologists at Harvard, sent actual people to apply for low-wage jobs. They were given identical résumés and similar interview training. Their sobering finding was that African-American applicants with no criminal record were offered jobs at a rate as low as white applicants who had criminal records.
These kinds of methods have been used in a variety of research, especially in the last 20 years. Here are just some of the general findings:
? When doctors were shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients — even when their medical files were statistically identical to those of white patients.
? When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.
? Several studies found that sending emails with stereotypically black names in response to apartment-rental ads on Craigslist elicited fewer responses than sending ones with white names. A regularly repeated study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sent African-Americans and whites to look at apartments and found that African-Americans were shown fewer apartments to rent and houses for sale.
? White state legislators were found to be less likely to respond to constituents with African-American names. This was true of legislators in both political parties.
? Emails sent to faculty members at universities, asking to talk about research opportunities, were more likely to get a reply if a stereotypically white name was used.
? Even eBay auctions were not immune. When iPods were auctioned on eBay, researchers randomly varied the skin color on the hand holding the iPod. A white hand holding the iPod received 21 percent more offers than a black hand.
The silent bias, the thing that people aren’t even aware of can have an amazing impact in the lives of African Americans and not for the better.
I don’t know what the answer is here. Some would say this a perfect reason for affirmative action and while there is some need for that, it still leaves African Americans out of the social networks that help whites in employment. No doubt there has to be more acknowledgement of implicit racial bias in the workplace and conscious efforts to combat it.
While America deals with this, I still have to find work. I have a part time job and some freelancing to help (though the freelancing is slow…it’s August, I guess), but I need either more freelancing or a fuller time job to pay the bills. Either way, I have to gird myself and hope that people will see me as the communications geek and not random unknown black guy.