Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST - Armentha Cruise runs The Aspen Group, a staffing firm in Silver Spring, Md. on Dec. 15, 2012. Cruise said that in her early years in business, she struggled to place her mostly minority clientele.
By Michael A. Fletcher
In the quarter-century that Armentha Cruise has run her Silver Spring staffing firm, the nation has made strides toward racial equality. Voters have twice elected a black president, African Americans shine among Hollywood’s brightest stars, and the number of blacks who graduate from college has tripled.
But this stubborn fact remains: The African American jobless rate is about twice that of whites, a disparity that has barely budged since the government began tracking the data in 1972. In last week’s jobs report, the black unemployment rate was 13.2 percent, while the white rate stood at 6.8 percent.
Discrimination has long been seen as the primary reason for this disparity, which is evident among workers from engineers to laborers. But fresh research has led scholars to conclude that African Americans also suffer in the labor market from having weaker social networks than other groups.
Having friends and relatives who can introduce you to bosses or tell you about ripe opportunities has proved to be one of the most critical factors in getting work. Such connections can also help people hold onto their jobs, researchers say.
“It is surprising to many people how important job networks are to finding work,” said Deirdre A. Royster, a New York University sociologist. “The information they provide help people make a good first impression, get through screening and get hired.”
Cruise, who is black, said that in her early years in business she struggled to place her mostly minority clientele. Part of the problem, she suspected, was whites were more often in a position to hire and “tend to hire people who look like them.”
“African Americans are constantly fighting to overcome a perception of being less-than,” she said. “You have the president of the United States, you have Oprah, you have all the people who have done phenomenal things. But they are seen as the exception.”
Several studies show that black workers tend to lack these connections.
In her research, Royster followed the experiences of a group of similarly situated black and white men, all graduates of the same vocational school and who sought jobs in the same areas. She screened the men for things that might normally affect their employability: values, work ethic and performance. It turned out that the white men did much better getting jobs, which she said grew in part from their access to a more robust network of contacts.
“It just happens to be the case that if you are a white guy you are more likely to know people who have access to a certain set of jobs,” she said. “It has to do with becoming part of a network of reciprocity.”
Recent research also shows immigrants have active networks that help new arrivals navigate the country, and trading information about jobs is an important part of that.
That is one reason that Hispanics — more than a third of whom are foreign born — have lower jobless rates than African Americans despite, on average, having fewer educational credentials.
“Immigrants have to use their networks for a larger variety of activities than other people,” Royster said.
Researchers are quick to add that bias — both conscious and unconscious — continues to be the most significant obstacle confronting black job-seekers.
The racial gap in the unemployment rate defies educational attainment and occupational endeavor. African Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree had a 7.1 percent jobless rate in 2011, while the white rate was 3.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Similarly, black workers with only a high school education had a jobless rate of 15.5 percent, while similarly educated white workers had an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent.
Black workers in computer and mathematical occupations — which job-training officials say are hard to fill — had an 8.1 percent jobless rate last year, while for whites the rate was 4.1 percent. Among construction workers, who were hard hit by the recession, the black jobless rate was 30.4 percent, compared with 15.3 percent for whites.
“The 2-to-1 gap in the unemployment rate is one of the most pronounced signs of the presence of discrimination in our society,” said William A. Darity, a professor at Duke University. “That disparity, I think, is an index of discrimination.”
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Labor Economics, supported that point. After examining more than two years of personnel data from a large retail chain, researchers found that white, Hispanic and Asian managers tend to hire fewer blacks and more whites than did black managers.
In addition, racial audit tests of employers consistently find that when identically credentialed people apply for jobs, whites are much more likely to be contacted for an interview and hired.
Keith A. Owens, 54, has been looking for work since losing his job last year as communications director for the Wayne County treasurer’s office in Michigan. A former award-winning journalist, he has applied for “40 or 50 or 60 jobs” with no luck. He has managed to scrape by playing guitar with a band and working with his wife’s firm, Writing It Right for You.
“I feel kind of funny saying the reason I was not hired is because I am black, because the fact is for very few opportunities I even got into the room,” he said. But, he added, he does not see similarly experienced white people going through the same things. “For some reason, things seem to have worked out okay for them.”
The economic downturn has only reinforced these troubling dynamics for black workers. They were hit harder than whites during the recession, in part because workers with less education were more likely to lose work during the downturn. They also have been slower to recover. One in five African Americans is employed by government — as opposed to one in seven whites — a sector that has cut jobs even as other parts of the economy have inched toward recovery.
Blacks are also under-represented in industries that have shown some strength during the recovery, including manufacturing and professional and business services, according to the Labor Department.
The result has been predictable: Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed than whites, but they are also more likely to remain jobless for longer periods, wreaking havoc on their financial lives.
Although the disparity is clear and long-standing, many Americans do not view it as a problem. Polls have found that the vast majority of whites think blacks have equal opportunity in the job market. Similarly, huge majorities of whites say in surveys that they do not make negative assumptions when they encounter someone of another race.
Meanwhile, analysts note, efforts aimed at fostering equality are waning. “There are really few public-policy resources to address the problem head-on,” said Algernon Austin, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute. “Support for affirmative action has gone from tepid to very weak.”
Austin and other researchers said a federal direct-jobs program could address the disparity, but support for such large-scale initiatives is hard to find in the current political environment.
“There is a very, very disturbing situation where people believe the world is operating in a way that is different from the way it is actually operating,” said Darity, the Duke professor. “That makes it very, very hard to address these problems.”