Discrimination: The Root of the Black Job Crisis

The battle continues to rage between economists, politicians, immigrants' rights activists, and black anti-immigration activists over whether illegal immigrants are the major cause of double-digit joblessness among poor, unskilled young black males.

The battle lines are so tight that black anti-immigration activists have planned a march for jobs for American-born blacks on April 28 in Los Angeles. This is a direct counter to the planned mass action on May 1st by immigrants' rights groups.

According to Labor Department reports, nearly forty percent of young black males are unemployed. Despite the Bush administration's boast that its tax cut and economic policies has resulted in the creation of more than 100,000 new jobs, black unemployment still remains the highest of any group in America. Black male unemployment for the past decade has been nearly double that of white males.

But several years before the immigration combatants squared off, then-University of Wisconsin graduate researcher Devah Pager pointed the finger in another direction -- a direction that makes most employers squirm. That's the persistent and deep racial discrimination in the workplace. Pager found that black men without a criminal record are less likely to find a job than white men with criminal records

Pager's finger-point at discrimination as the main reason for the racial hiring disparity set off a howl of protest from employers, trade groups, and even a Nobel Prize winner. They lambasted her for faulty research. They said her sample was much too small, and the questions too vague. They pointed to the ocean of state and federal laws that ban racial discrimination.

But in 2005, Pager, now a sociologist at Princeton, duplicated her study. She surveyed nearly 1,500 private employers in New York City. She used teams of black and white testers, standardized resumes, and she followed up their visits with telephone interviews with employers. These are the standard methods researchers use to test racial discrimination.

The results were exactly the same as in her earlier study. Black men with no criminal records were no more likely to find work than white men with criminal records. That's true despite the fact that New York has some of the nation's toughest laws against job discrimination.

Dumping the blame for the chronic job crisis of young, poor black men on illegal immigration stokes the hysteria of immigration reform opponents, but it also lets employers off the hook for discrimination. And it's easy to see how that could happen. The mountain of federal and state anti discrimination laws, affirmative action programs, and successful employment discrimination lawsuits gives the public impression that job discrimination is a relic of a shameful, and bigoted racial past.

But that isn't the case, and Pager's study is hardly isolated proof of that. Countless research studies, the Urban League's annual State of Black America report, a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, and the numerous EEOC practice discrimination complaints over the past decade reveal that employers have devised endless dodges to evade anti-discrimination laws. That includes rejecting applicants by their names, areas of the city they live in, and claims of mistaken advertising (that the jobs advertised were filled).

In a comprehensive seven-month university study of the hiring practices of hundreds of Chicago-area employers (a few years before Pager's graduate study), many top company officials said they would not hire blacks. When asked to assess the work ethic of white, black and Latino employees by race, nearly forty percent of the employers ranked blacks dead last.

The employers routinely described blacks as "unskilled," "uneducated," "illiterate." "dishonest," "lacked initiative," "unmotivated," "involved with gangs and drugs," "did not understand work," "unstable," "lacked charm," "had no family values," and were "poor role models."

The consensus among these employers was that blacks brought their alleged pathologies to the work place, and were to be avoided at all costs. The researchers found that black business owners shared many of the same negative attitudes.

Other surveys have found that a substantial number of non-white business owners also refuse to hire blacks. Their bias effectively closed out another area of employment to thousands of blacks, solely based on their color.

This only tells part of the sorry job picture for many poor blacks. The Congressional Black Caucus reports that at least half of all unemployed black workers have been out of work for nearly a year or more. Many more have given up looking for work. The Census does not count them among the unemployed.

The dreary job picture for the unskilled and marginally skilled urban poor, especially the black poor, is compounded by the racially skewed attitudes of small and large employers. Even if there was not a single illegal immigrant in America, that attitude insures that black job seekers would still be just as poor and unemployed.

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