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Black Jobs Matter

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.

I’ve seen this happen in my own life.  I have a college degree and a post college degree.  But my income is not in keeping with the degrees.


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.


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45 thoughts on “Black Jobs Matter

  1. Good luck Dennis. This is a tough nut. I’ve seen a lot of research you note and it seems undeniable that bias is insidious and resistant to elimination. Affirmative Action is certainly important. Job searches are weird i wonder if i am such an edge case my experience is useless. While i certainly have the white guy advantage and post grad degree, i’ve never got any job from knowing someone who worked at a place. I have a vague dream of someday actually being able to leverage a relationship to get a job. If i didn’t have education and the white guy bonus i don’t know where i’d be since i clearly have no useful social networks or ability to use them.

    Social services/mental health the fields i’ve always worked in has always been pretty good with hiring practices. At least half the field is women and there always been a firm push to being open to minority experience. Even with that i’ve seen a few things that made me go “hmmmmm.” I sort of rambling, but i guess the gov can push affirmative action and enforce discrimination laws. But each organization needs leadership if they are to weed out as much bias as possible. I think some fields have a lot of people who want to do that and others don’t.


    • While i certainly have the white guy advantage and post grad degree, i’ve never got any job from knowing someone who worked at a place.

      If I’m honest with myself, all of the non-drudgery jobs I’ve had–and even some of the drudgery jobs–I got from somehow knowing someone or being in a network of people in the know. Of course, I also benefit from white (and male) advantages. And those advantages meld with each other in hard to pin down ways. I may not have had the connections I do, or I may have had fewer of them, if I weren’t white or if I were a woman. (Not to mention that in most workplaces I’ve been at, middle- and upper-management have tended to be white. In my private sector jobs, upper-management has also tended to be predominantly male, while in my corner of academe, it tends to be female, but still white.)

      All of which is to say….I try to keep that all in mind when, say, affirmative action is discussed. I’m lukewarm about race-based aa and really do think whether it’s good or bad depends on how it’s done in any particular case or program, but I still consider myself a supporter for the above-stated reasons.

      I also try to keep in mind the degree to which I share the biases that Dennis talks about. I’ve never been in a situation to hire someone, and I’ve only occasionally been in a situation to supervise someone, but I do try to be aware of my biases.


      • I got most of my post-restaurant jobs (if not all of them) because I knew a guy who knew a guy.

        It was mostly of the form “Hey, we’ve got this job opening, do you have any friends who’d be a good fit?” and that resulted in me applying and getting the job. Now, I like to think that I was a good worker (defined as “not having to outrun the bear, merely having to outrun the co-workers”) and that got me into a position where I found myself recommended for jobs that had more responsibilities.

        But the fact that I ended up being a good worker wasn’t what got me in the door in the first place. It was the whole “I need someone for this position. Do you know anybody?” question that got me there. Most of the people who know me well enough to think of me in that situation are white folks.

        And, yeah, I’ve answered that question on behalf of other folks too. Most of the folks in my personal circle are white so the overwhelming majority of the people I’ve been able to personally recommend are also white.

        Iterate that and re-iterate it enough times, you’ve got a bunch of white folks and a couple of People of Color in an incestuous industry where you’re about two (maybe three) degrees of separation from everybody.

        Once you’re in the door, it’s something approaching a meritocracy… but you’ve got to get past the door. And that step relies very heavily indeed on knowing a guy who knows a guy.


        • Once you’re in the door, it’s something approaching a meritocracy… but you’ve got to get past the door. And that step relies very heavily indeed on knowing a guy who knows a guy.

          I dunno,

          Dennis says,

          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.

          He’s saying meritocracy didn’t help him.


            • He also said it wasn’t intentional, yet there it was, what happened to him happened to him.

              The point here is that the numbers hold up what he’s saying — his experience is not unique. There isn’t a smoking gun, it’s not intentional, but it keeps happening.

              You said meritocracy rewards; but due to the unintentional biases we hold are a part of the merit rewarded is being white or maybe being male or straight or whatever.


      • All but four of my legal contract jobs were from contacts of one sort or another. The others were just small jobs and those just came out of the blue or very indirectly.

        Ironically, I got my associate position off of Craigslist of all places.


    • Sometimes it is just knowing someone who has been in the industry. My mom is also an independent school educator. She has never directly helped me get a job. But she told me the right places to look for them or the right head hunter groups to work with. Could I have come by this information absent her? Sure. But I had it from the get go because she had access to the system two decades earlier.


  2. Two thoughts, not particularly tied together:

    First, it seems to me the point here is the white job-seeker gets to be frustrated at not knowing why her qualifications aren’t attractive to an employer. The non-white job-seeker gets that frustration plus the frustration of also not knowing whether his qualifications would have been good enough to be attractive to an employer if they had been held by a white person. Not having had to have lived that, I’m sure that I can’t fully appreciate what that feels like. I can readily imagine being so stressed at the process as to want to do violence to inanimate objects.

    Second, you may recall that I do a fair amount of employment litigation. The most common claims that I see are disability discrimination and retaliation for protected conduct. Age, sex, sexual preference, and even national origin are in the second tier — uncommon, but not unheard of. The rarest claims that I see in practice are race and religion discrimination. These are very rarely even alleged, and even less commonly proven. When they are, there’s typically something very obvious about the facts: the use of a racial slur, for instance, or some other overt, explicit statement evidencing racial bias on the part of the bad actor. Since racism is no longer capable of dressing nicely enough to walk about in the open, this sort of thing is pretty unusual. I know full well that juries actively resist these kinds of conclusions and seem to work hard to rationalize away a result that depends on finding someone was a racist. They’re faster to condemn someone as a murderer than they are to condemn him as a racist.


    • I think the first point is very spot on. There have been studies that shown identical resumes get fewer responses if the resume as a name that is perceived as being “black” over being white.

      As to the employment stuff, when I have seen racial discrimination cases but they are very overt like you said. They are overt in ways that makes you think WTF was going through the brains of the defendant and the defendant’s employees. Though even sex-discrimination cases are getting hard to prove as we saw with the Ellen Pao case and the “sexism you can’t quite prove”



    • Re: Point #1

      I’ve heard of (but not personally read) that that sort of stress — stress that results from combatting racism on a daily basis — can be measured in disparate health outcomes between Blacks and whites, even when controlling for other factors.

      We need to collectively get our heads out of our asses when it comes to racism in this country. Particularly us white folks.


      • Was going to make a Baptist joke, but I worried that in this context it would seem insensitive, so hold on, I’m just going to make it in my head…

        Hahahaha…. Oh man, that’s a good one.

        Anyway, 2 days before Christmas is harsh, not only because it’s Christmas, but because the time after Christmas (January/February) tends to see a lot less hiring, so you’re both out of a job on Christmas and out of a job in the most difficult time of the year to get a job.

        Is there some some sort of Monster.com for non-secular jobs, by the way?

        (And I know some big church people in Tennessee. If that’s a place you’d consider, I’d be happy to pass along your info.)


          • I’m sure it varies by industry. In law, it’s usually spring/summer because firms pay out bonuses somewhere between Christmas and March. People rarely leave too close to that time.


          • I’ve always seen a lot of hiring in the new quarter. It’s the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas where nobody hires because nobody wants to have HR dealing with anything more difficult than pulling contractors’ fillings out (apparently HR likes to party).


  3. Dennis, well said.

    I particularly like this:
    My own belief is that there is an implicit bias at work.  It’s not intentional, but it is there and it has consequences. 

    It has the cadence of Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.”

    I made a big deal over brainwashing over the weekend; perhaps this is a bigger picture of that same phenomena; that just as we’ve been trained to mistrust Hillary, we’ve been trained to see thugs and baby mamas instead of people; and one the cost of that subliminal training is fewer jobs. I’ve been researching others, reproductive health care (high incarceration rates limit the pool of husbands, contributing to increased STDs and abortion rates for black women).

    From schools to policing to jobs, that subliminal bias, reinforced by decades of dog-whistling habits has a real cost to reckon.

    Perhaps, most importantly, is that it’s not intentional. Sure, that the whistles are sounded might be; but that we hear them over and over, internalize them, and then use that filter in our hiring decisions or jury decision or arrest decision or marriage decision is normal; it’s not something to feel guilty about having done.

    The question is how you’ll adjust your frame of thinking once a bias is revealed to you, in you. Do you recognize the unintentional habit of bias and screen for it until your habits readjust or do you slip back into the hold habit?


      • Where have I ever said that?

        I’ve said I think the distrust that exists is mostly based on the constant chatter that she’s not trustworthy. I rarely find people who distrust her based on her actual doings.


        • Hillary’s a known quantity with known backers. I can’t trust her to do what the backers don’t want, but I wouldn’t trust Snotty to do what the Kochs don’t want either.

          Is this what we mean by trustworthy? Because I can trust a smart lady like Clinton to generally do the smart thing.


  4. I’m curious as to why you consider attributing some of your employment difficulties to your race but not your sexual orientation?

    That aside, sometimes it comes down to presentation, appearance, or something similar. Maybe you came off as a jerk when you spoke to the editor. Maybe he was an elitist snob who didn’t think you could do the job for whatever reason. Maybe, maybe, they actually had filled the job. I’m not trying to take anything away from what you said, but there are dozens of possible reasons why you didn’t get each job or got fired.

    Hell, I got laid off even after our department cut the mandatory 10% in cost and staff. My VP committed to taking an additional staff cut “for the team”, and since I was last in, I was first out. Sometimes folks get fired because someone has to go. Then again, I’ve known plenty of people with poor working skills, who loaf around and bitch and moan about the work they have to do, “I’m a CPA and he has me doing scut work”, that are FIRST on the layoff list.

    So how much of this is race and how much of it is “something else”. I can’t say, but it’s something to think on.


    • Damon,
      With the numbers you’ve got in communications, you’re likely to get a decent statistical sample of gay folks.

      (There’s also the idea of what one is presenting as — it may be that he presents (in a non-visual way) as black more than “stereotypically gay”)


    • You could look at any individual instance and probably come up with a half-dozen alternate explanations. But when you look at the big picture data — the research Dennis cites — it becomes a lot harder to dismiss. Eventually, you have to say, “Yea, there’s a there there.”


      • Kazzy, there’s a big difference between “Yea, there’s a there there.” and THAT’S the reason why I got fired. That’s why I asked whether or not Russel had considers his orientation as well. It COULD be race. It COULD be orientation. It COULD be a lot of things. Baring anything specifically overt, just how do you expect to pigeonhole it?


        • The point is that it can’t really be pigeonholed. If it could, it could be actionable. The anecdotes are there to highlight the statistical trend that lies under the whole thesis. That being, all other things being equal, black candidates will be passed over & black employees will be let go first.


          • Yeah, but that’s NOT my point. My point was “why did you go all “it was race” first?

            The stats are there to bolster the primary assumption by Russel that it was all about race. All I’m asking is “why did you assume that it was race first vs something else”.

            Still waiting on a response…


  5. as someone who hires freelance designers quite often, i think your portfolio nav can be improved.

    – lead with the portfolio links. that should be the first thing i see. i’m an impatient jerk, i got stuff going on, and i need to see if you got what i need.
    – if you have any secular designs/jobs, include them. if you’re using a second portfolio for secular work, ignore this point.
    – the ads don’t help. get rid of them if you can.


  6. I hate that I cannot ask questions without that questioning automatically being assigned to the “white guy bein’ racist” bin.

    But then, that’s kind of what the OP is about–that we cannot see a black person lose their job and not think “racist bosses”.


    IT is not a core function for a church. Communications is closer, but arguably less valuable than ministry. You might see yourself as adding more value through outreach and congregational engagement, but the church management might be thinking “for what we pay Dennis, we can afford three volunteers to go to the senior center and help do in-room worship services, and that’s closer to our mission than having a really snappy newsletter and a smoothly-functioning email list”.


    • I would disagree. If a church doesn’t have a good website or is using computers from 1997, it’s not going to be able to do good mission. A church has to communicate and that means spending some money on technology. If it’s not essential, then neither is a church janitor or even a church secretary for that matter.

      Sorry to be snappy about this, but it is that kind of thinking that has got me canned and for the record the church didn’t decide to spend more on the poor with me gone.


      • “Sorry to be snappy about this, but it is that kind of thinking that has got me canned”

        You lost your job over it; I can certainly understand why you’re being snappy. And you’re right that a church has to communicate, but does it have to communicate first? If there’s not enough money to do everything, then which things should a church do?

        And I’m certain that this is the conversation that was had regarding who to keep and who to let go.

        But according to Chris I’m a fuckin’ racist so whatevs.


  7. That has got to be maddening – knowing that any particular decision might not have had race behind it, but that there it’s statistically practically guaranteed some of them had, at some point.

    I hope you find something satisfactory soon.


  8. I’ve worked for many assholes and been mistreated by many. With one exception, for various reasons, I have never thought my race, sex, or what not was behind the treatment I received, since I am a white male and most of my asshole bosses were as well.
    But if you are not a white male, I would think that you would often have cause to wonder. Or would you just know? The uncertainty must be maddening.


  9. This is a good article. Thanks for writing it.

    And I think it does contribute to a strong case for affirmative action. Because the bias is implicit, it’s not something a business or an organization would notice unless it was directly brought to their attention. If an organization sets a goal of having a diverse workforce, it gives them a reason to look at their hiring practices, see if they’re only hiring white folks, and ask themselves why that’s happening and what they need to change.


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