By David Wessel -- Wall Street Journal - Sept 4, 2003
high-school graduates with similar job histories and demeanors apply in person
for jobs as waiters, warehousemen or
Which man is more likely to get called back?
It is surprisingly
close. In a carefully crafted experiment in which college students posing
as job applicants visited 350 employers,
Many white Americans think racial discrimination is no longer much of a problem. Many blacks think otherwise. In offices populated with college graduates, white men quietly confide to other white men that affirmative action makes it tough for a white guy to get ahead these days. (If that's so, a black colleague once asked me, how come there aren't more blacks in the corporate hierarchy?)
A recent Gallup poll asked: "Do you feel that racial minorities in this country have equal job opportunities as whites, or not?" Among whites, the answer was 55% yes and 43% no; the rest were undecided. Among blacks, the answer was 17% yes and 81% no.
The Milwaukee and other experiments, though plagued by the shortcomings of research that relies on pretense to explain how people behave, offer evidence that discrimination remains a potent factor in the economic lives of black Americans.
"In these low-wage, entry-level markets, race remains a huge barrier. Affirmative-action pressures aren't operating here," says Devah Pager, the sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who conducted the Milwaukee experiment and recently won the American Sociological Association's prize for the year's best doctoral dissertation. "Employers don't spend a lot of time screening applicants. They want a quick signal whether the applicant seems suitable. Stereotypes among young black men remain so prevalent and so strong that race continues to serve as a major signal of characteristics of which employers are wary."
In a similar experiment that got some attention last year, economists Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology responded in writing to help- wanted ads in Chicago and Boston, using names likely to be identified by employers as white or African-American. Applicants named Greg Kelly or Emily Walsh were 50% more likely to get called for interviews than those named Jamal Jackson or Lakisha Washington, names far more common among African-Americans. Putting a white-sounding name on an application, they found, is worth as much as an extra eight years of work experience.
experiments gauge the degree of discrimination, not just its existence. Both
suggest that a blemish on a black
In the Milwaukee experiment, Ms. Pager dispatched white and black men with and without prison records to job interviews. Whites without drug busts on their applications did best; blacks with drug busts did worst. No surprise there. But this was a surprise: Acknowledging a prison record cut a white man's chances of getting called back by half, while cutting a black man's already-slimmer chances by a much larger two- thirds.
"Employers, already reluctant to hire blacks, are even more wary of blacks with proven criminal involvement," Ms. Pager says." These testers were bright, articulate college students with effective styles of self- presentation. The cursory review of entry-level applicants, however, leaves little room for these qualities to be noticed." This is a big deal given that nearly 17% of all black American men have served some time, and the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics projects that, at current rates, 30% of black boys who turn 12 this year will spend time in jail in their lifetimes.
Boston and Chicago experiment, researchers tweaked some resumes to make them
more appealing to employers. They added
a year of work experience, some military experience, fewer periods
for which no job was listed, computer skills and the like. This
paid off for whites: Those with better resumes were called back
for interviews 30% more than other whites. It didn't pay off
for blacks: Precisely the same changes yielded only a 9% increase
in callbacks. Someday Americans will be able to speak of racial
discrimination in hiring in the past tense. Not yet.
DAVID WESSEL David Wessel, 49, The Wall Street Journal's deputy
Washington bureau chief, writes Capital, a weekly look at the economy and
the forces shaping living standards around
the world. He also appears frequently on CNBC.