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Employment Discrimination in the Age of Obama

Deuel Ross,
Racial Justice Program
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December 10, 2009

Even after the election of President Barack Obama, race continues to play a significant role in limiting the employment opportunities of both college-educated and low-wage African-American workers in the United States. This was brought to the forefront recently by both an article in the New York Times and a report released by the Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft def Arbeit / Institute for the Study of Labor report (IZA).

There is a disheartening sense among many educated black job-seekers that — rather than helping African-Americans — the Obama presidency has actually lessened their job prospects. These African-Americans feel that there has been a backlash by some segments of the American public against the president because of his race and — by proxy — against well-educated African-Americans by some employers. The Times article mentions the difficult choice that many black applicants must face in this tight job market between either scrubbing their résumés and applications of “blackness” — by declining to state their race, erasing affiliations with particular social or educational institutions, and even altering their very names — or dealing with the sad reality that some potential employers will deny interviews to qualified candidates based upon their perceived race.

The IZA report was conducted by Princeton and Harvard researchers and used black, white and Latino “testers” to apply for low-wage jobs throughout New York City in 2004. These testers were trained and matched by interview skills, physical attractiveness, and other characteristics then given faux résumés that conveyed similar levels of experience before setting out to meet employers who had advertised openings for low-wage jobs.

The results of the study confirmed what many had long believed about discrimination in hiring practices. While white and Latino applicants received callbacks or offers 31 percent and 25.2 percent of the time, respectively; black testers received positive responses only 15.2 percent of the time. White applicants with a criminal record were more successful than black applicants without a criminal record, with positive responses 17.2 percent of the time — compared to 15.4 percent for Latinos and 13 percent for black testers with similar criminal records. Shockingly, the study found that “blackness confers the same disadvantage as a felony conviction” in employment opportunities.

Finally, the study also cites empirical and anecdotal evidence that employers were more likely to be flexible in evaluating the qualifications of white applicants; as well as employers’ penchant for channeling black applicants to less desirable jobs — such as those requiring manual labor or not as much customer contact — than those advertised.

Although the IZA study was conducted in 2004, there is little to suggest that much has changed over the last five years. In fact, it has likely only gotten worse for African-Americans. Whereas in 2004, the American economy was relatively stable and black unemployment was 10.4 percent with white unemployment at 4.8 percent, today, in the throes of a recession, black unemployment is 15.6 percent — twice the white unemployment rate. Further, a report released last Thursday by the Government Accountability Office found that, under the Bush administration, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division brought nearly half as many sex and employment discrimination lawsuits per year as under the Clinton administration.

Despite the election of the first African-American president, unconscious and systematic forms of racial discrimination remain barriers to African-American success. The recent academic and news reports validate the lived experiences of many African-Americans and document the real consequences of the prior administration’s failure to take the important role of the Civil Rights Division seriously. These pieces also demonstrate the continuing need for diversity and affirmative action programs and aggressive civil rights law enforcement by the government as well as organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union — even in the age of Obama.