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What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Jobs

How racism, global economics, and the new Jim Crow fuel Black America's crippling jobs crisis.

| Tue Jul. 5, 2011 2:20 PM EDT

Behind Bars, the Invisible Unemployed

So what keeps blacks from cutting into those employment figures? Among the theories, one that deserves special attention points to the high incarceration rate among blacks—and especially black men.

In 2009, 7.2 million Americans—or 3.1 percent of all adults—were under the jurisdiction of the US corrections system, including 1.6 million Americans incarcerated in a state or federal prison. Of that population, nearly 40 percent were black, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the American population. Blacks were six times as likely to be in prison as whites, and three times as likely as Hispanics. For some perspective, consider what author of The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander wrote last year: "There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began."

Incarceration amounts to a double whammy when it comes to African American unemployment. Rarely mentioned in the usual drumbeat of media reports on jobs is the fact that the Labor Department doesn't include prison populations in its official unemployment statistics. This automatically shrinks the pool of blacks capable of working and in the process lowers the black jobless rate.

In the mid-1990s, academics Bruce Western and Becky Pettit discovered that the American prison population lowered the jobless rate for black men by five percentage points, and for young black men by eight percentage points. (Of course, this applies to whites, Asians, and Hispanics as well, but the figures are particularly striking given the overrepresentation of blacks in the prison population.)

Even that vast incarcerated population pales, however, in comparison to the number of ex-cons who have rejoined the world beyond the prison walls. In 2008, there were 12 million to 14 million ex-offenders in the US old enough to work, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. So many ex-cons represent a serious drag on our economy, according to CEPR, sucking from it $57 billion to $65 billion in output.

Of course, such research tells us how much, not why—as in, why are ex-cons so much more likely to be out of work? For an answer, it's necessary to turn to an eye-opening and, in some circles, controversial field of study that may offer the best explanation for the 60-year scandal of black unemployment.

 

Twice as Hard, Half as Far

In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each was 23 years old, a local college student, bright, and articulate. They looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience. From June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job site called "Jobnet," applying for the same entry-level jobs as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers. There was one obvious difference in each pair: One man was a former criminal and the other was not.

If this sounds like an experiment, that's because it was. Watching the explosive growth of the criminal-justice system, fueled largely by ill-conceived "tough-on-crime" policies, sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they'd done their time—a process all but ignored by politicians and the judicial system.

So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs. Then she recorded who got callbacks and who didn't. She soon discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off in employer responses—not entirely surprising. But when Pager started separating out black applicants from white ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality and jobs to the core.

Pager's white applicant without a criminal record had a 34 percent callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17 percent for her white applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black applicants were 14 percent and 5 percent. And yes, you read that right: In Pager's experiment, white job applicants with a criminal history got more callbacks than black applicants without one. "I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some with race," Pager says. "I certainly was not expecting that result, and it was quite a surprise."

Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple's sprawling market for entry-level jobs—once again, with one applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record. (As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who posed as the ex-con.) The results? Again Pager's African American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for ex-criminals: a drop-off of 9 percentage points for whites, but 15 percentage points for blacks. "Employers already reluctant to hire blacks," Pager wrote, "appear particularly wary of blacks with known criminal histories."

Other research has supported her findings. A 2001-02 field experiment by academics from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, uncovered a sizeable gap in employer callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) versus black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal). They also found that the benefits of a better resume were 30 percent greater for whites than blacks.

These findings proved a powerful antidote to the growing notion, mostly in conservative circles, that discrimination was an illusion and racism long eradicated. In The Content of Our Character (1991), Shelby Steele argued that racial discrimination no longer held black men or women back from the jobs they wanted; the problem was in their heads. Dinesh D'Souza, a first-generation immigrant of Indian descent, published The End of Racism in 1995, similarly claiming racial discrimination had little to do with the plight of black America.

Not so, insist Pager, Darity, Harvard's Bruce Western, and other academics using real data with an unavoidable message: Racism is alive and well. It leads to endemic, deeply embedded patterns of discrimination whose harmful impact has barely changed in 60 years. And it cannot be ignored. As the old African American adage puts it, "You've got to work twice as hard to get half as far as a black person in white America."

 

Is There a Solution for Black America?

Tracing black unemployment in America since World War II, there are two moments when, briefly, the gap between black and white joblessness narrowed ever so slightly—in the 1940s and again in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For example in 1970, unemployment was at 5.8 percent for blacks and 3.3 percent for whites, a sizeable gap but significantly better than what followed in the Reagan era. Those are moments worth revisiting, if only to understand what began to go right.

According to University of Chicago professors William Sites and Virginia Parks, those periods were marked by a flurry of civil rights and anti-discrimination activity on the federal level. A series of actions ranging from the creation of the Fair Employment Practice Committee in 1941 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which mandated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, write Sites and Parks, had "dramatic impacts on employment discrimination."

But those gains of the 1970s were soon wiped out. The thinning of union membership and the dwindling power of organized labor didn't help either, after decades of pressure on employers to end discrimination against workers of color.

Today, in terrible times, with the possibility of social legislation off the table in Washington, the question remains: What, if anything, can be done to close the jobless gap between blacks and whites? When I asked Devah Pager, she called this the "million-dollar question." This form of discrimination, she pointed out, is especially difficult to deal with. As she noted in 2005, many employers who discriminate don't even realize they're doing so; they're just going with "gut feelings." "It's not that these employers have decided that they are not going to hire workers from a particular group," Pager told me.

What won't work is relying on discrimination watchdogs to crack down more often. The way federal anti-discrimination law works, it's up to the person who was discriminated against to raise an alarm. As Duke's William Darity points out, that's a near impossibility for a job applicant who must convincingly read the mind of a person he or she doesn't know. Worse than that, the applicant who wants to lodge charges of discrimination also has to prove that the discrimination was intentional, which, as Pager's experiments make clear, is no small feat. Under the circumstances, as Darity told me, perhaps no one should be surprised to discover that blacks "grossly underreport their exposure to discrimination and whites grossly overreport it."

Of course, fixing a problem first requires acknowledging it—something the nation has yet to do, says the Economic Policy Institute's Algernon Austin. To put blacks back to work, lawmakers should invest federal money directly in job creation, especially for black workers. Other avenues for putting people back to work, like a payroll tax credit, won't do the trick. "We've spent billions in trying to build jobs overseas" in war zones, Austin told me. "But if we invested that money here in our cities, we wouldn't have this racial gap."

But how likely is that at a moment when, in a Washington gripped by paralysis, any discussion of spending in Washington begins and ends at how much to cut? The painful reality of permanent crisis for black workers is here to stay. That's how it seems to blacks in DC, especially those who live east of the river. In April, another group of protesters took to the 11th Street Bridge to demand more DC hires, and the following month, the group DC Jobs or Else took their complaints to City Hall. But progress is slow. "We're being pushed out economically," said William Alston El, a 63-year-old unemployed resident who grew up in DC. "They say it's not racism, but the name of the game is they have the money. You can't live [in] a place if you can't pay the rent."

Andy Kroll is a reporter in the DC bureau of Mother Jones magazine, and an associate editor at TomDispatch. He's appeared on MSNBC, Al Jazeera English, Current TV, and Democracy Now! to discuss the economy and its ills. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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