'Ban the Box' Catch 22: What's Good for Ex-Con Job Applicants Is Bad for Fighting Racism

A new study finds that "Ban the Box" laws, implemented to prevent employers from automatically dismissing applicants with criminal records, could actually be increasing racial discrimination against black job-seekers.


Ban the Box (BTB) is an international campaign to get employers to remove job application checkboxes that ask if applicants have a criminal record, often disqualifying them. Researchers from the University of Michigan and Princeton University sent 15,000 fake job applications for entry-level positions in New York and New Jersey. Some were sent before BTB legislation took effect, and some were sent out after. A Chicago Tribune article explains the parameters:

"The study used first and last names to denote race—for example, Terrell Washington for black men and Scott Weber for white men—and otherwise the resumes were identical."

For the first round of applications sent prior to the Ban the Box law, names without a criminal record attached received 63 percent more callbacks. White resumes received 7 percent more callbacks than names associated with black people. For the resumes that were sent out after the law took effect, white-sounding names received 45 percent more callbacks than black applicants with the same qualifications.

While leveling the playing field for those with criminal records is a positive step in progressive hiring practices, the study notes it could have "unintended consequences":

"In the absence of individual information about which applicants have criminal convictions, employers might statistically discriminate against applicants with characteristics correlated with criminal records, such as race." 

The Chicago Tribune quotes Sonja Starr, a University of Michigan law professor who coauthored the report, who says the study indicates employers might have:

"... wildly exaggerated impressions of how much more likely black male applicants are to have criminal records. It may be that seeing that someone has a clean record helps to dispel what might otherwise be an assumption, whether conscious or subconscious, by the employer about black applicants."

Starr points out that the study isn't necessarily an argument against Ban the Box, but that the results are "worrisome" for black men, particularly those with criminal records. According to Amanda Agan, a Princeton economist who coauthored the report with Starr:

"When you take criminal record information away, some employers seem to simply assume that black men are likely to have criminal pasts. So black men without conviction records, who won't be able to reveal that fact to employers, may be the ones who bear the costs of Ban the Box. This is especially troubling because black male unemployment levels are already more than twice the national average."

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