In 1963, near the apex of the civil rights movement, almost three of every four black Americans believed that whites had a better chance at a job than they did.
That sentiment has changed in the past five decades, but in the opinion of some, it hasn’t changed enough.
Today, three out of five black Americans feel the same way, according to a Gallup poll released in late August 2013 on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Fifty years after Martin Luther King’s landmark speech on racial equality, many blacks—in some cases, a majority—feel that blacks do not have equality with whites in matters of jobs, education, and housing,” wrote Gallup researchers, who polled 1,001 black Americans by telephone from Aug. 9-22, 2013.
Are black Americans justified in believing they’re at such a disadvantage?
“The answer is absolutely yes,” said Darrick Hamilton, associate professor of economics and urban policy at The New School in New York City. “The continued perception of racial bias in employment is consistent with labor market realities.”
The Gallup poll found that 60 percent of blacks in the U.S. believe that whites have an advantage at getting jobs for which they’re qualified. In 1963, 74 percent of blacks thought that whites had better employment chances, according to the Gallup researchers.
In a speech during anniversary celebrations, President Barack Obama told Americans that the unemployment rate of blacks was twice that of whites.
He wasn’t far off.
In 1963 the unemployment rate for all Americans was 5.7 percent; for blacks it was 10.8 percent, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in August 2013 the overall black unemployment rate was 13 percent, compared with 6.4 percent for whites and an overall national rate of 7.3 percent.
A 2013 report from Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy revealed that the median net worth of white households was $265,000 in 2009, while the median net worth of black households was $28,500.
“The conventional wisdom is that when the unemployment rate reaches around 8 percent the nation is in an economic crisis,” Hamilton said. “Over the past 40 years, since unemployment data has been routinely reported by race, there has been only one year in which the black unemployment rate has been below 8 percent. In contrast, there have been only five years in which the white rate has exceeded 8 percent. Thus, black Americans are in a state of perpetual employment crisis that worsens—near Depression level—during national economic downturns.”
Exactly what unemployment figures reflect is hard to discern: Do they reflect less opportunity for blacks, as the Gallup poll indicates blacks believe? Do they reflect blacks’ lack of skills, education or training? Do they reflect a lack of effort at job hunting or, perhaps, an inability to job hunt for some reason, like incarceration?
Two studies and 2012 BLS statistics reveal that when job qualifications, education and incarceration are accounted for, racial job discrimination appears to remain.
For a 2004 study, University of Chicago economist Marianne Bertrand and Harvard University economist Sendhil Mullainathan sent fictitious resumes in response to help-wanted ads appearing in Boston and Chicago newspapers. Resumes were randomly assigned white-sounding names, such as Emily and Greg, or black-sounding names, such as Lakisha and Jamal. White names received 50 percent more calls for interviews than black names, although both types of resumes presented similarly qualified candidates. Even when black resumes were doctored with better credentials than white resumes, the fictional white applicants still received more employer responses. The researchers discovered that this racial gap was uniform across occupation, industry and employer size.
A 2003 employment audit by Princeton University sociologist Devah Pager revealed that white entry-level-job candidates who had been incarcerated were more likely to receive calls in response to their applications than black candidates with prison records.
“The ascendant American narrative proclaims that we have transcended the racial divide,” Hamilton said, adding that blacks “are asked to ‘stop playing the race card,’ ‘get over it,’ and ‘take personal responsibility’ for the persistence of racial inequality.”
“It is a rhetoric that absolves public responsibility for the condition of black America. While the realities of structural racial inequality persist, [blacks’] agency to resist their economic condition will diminish and their willingness to accept the status quo will enhance.”
In 2012 the unemployment rate for white Americans with less than a high school diploma was 11.4 percent, but it was 20.4 percent for blacks in the same situation, according to the BLS. The unemployment rate for whites with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 3.7 percent, compared with 6.3 percent for blacks.
“Black Americans are more than justified in believing they're at a disadvantage,” said Alan Aja, deputy chair of Brooklyn College’s department of Puerto Rican & Latino studies. “One would expect more educational attainment to yield outcomes in the labor market for black Latinos that is equal to that of their white counterparts, but the evidence from wage-differential studies only means one thing—racism.”
One recent development tends to illustrate that hiring discrimination still persists: On Sept. 23, 2013, the U.S. Labor Department announced that an administrative law judge ordered Bank of America Corp. to pay 1,147 black job applicants $2.2 million in back wages and interest for race-based hiring discrimination at the company’s Charlotte facility.
Americans overall tend to have a rosier view of blacks’ job opportunities. In a Gallup poll conducted June 13-July 5, 2013, that questioned people of all races, more than two in three respondents (69 percent) said blacks have as good a chance as whites to get jobs for which they are qualified. Fewer than one in three (31 percent) disagreed.
“Americans as a whole are more positive about equal opportunities for blacks than blacks themselves are,” the Gallup researchers wrote. “Thus, Americans overall may see the United States as closer to realizing King’s vision than blacks do.”
Daniel Bustillo, a doctoral student in social policy at Columbia University, said Americans in general “conspicuously continue to choose to ignore empirical evidence related to historic and continuing racial bias in employment and its consequent effects.”
“Thus, when looking at the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence, which demonstrates that 50 years after the apex of the civil rights movement racial bias in employment remains an emphatic reality, the results of the poll are not surprising.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.