Study Shows How Deeply Black Men Face Discrimination In Hiring

By Tannette Johnson-Elie
JSOnline - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

October 8, 2003

Yet another study finds that racial discrimination is alive and well in the hiring process, and it's keeping black men in metro Milwaukee on the unemployment rolls.

The study offers this fictional scenario:

A young, white, male high school graduate with a felony conviction applies in person for entry level jobs as a driver, a dishwasher, a laborer, warehouse worker and production worker that are advertised in the newspaper and admits to employers that he served 18 months in prison for possession of cocaine with intent to sell.

A young black man with similar education, work history and style of presentation, but with no criminal record, applies for the same jobs.

Who do you think is more likely to be called back?

If you picked the white man with the felony conviction, you guessed right.

This study offers evidence that discrimination remains a major factor in the economic lives of black men, and highlights the fear and misunderstanding of black males that permeate the local job market.

Devah Pager, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., sent equally matched pairs of testers - two black and two white - to apply for low-skilled jobs at 350 places of employment in the Milwaukee area and found that white ex-offenders were more likely to be called back for an interview than black applicants who had no criminal record.

Students test employers

In this detailed study, bright, articulate, college students posed as job applicants. Even though the results were strikingly close, black men without criminal records were called back only 14% of the time, while whites with criminal records were called back 17% of the time.

The study, titled "The Mark of a Criminal Record," was conducted in Milwaukee between June and December 2001, and the results were released last month.

"It shows there's a great deal of work that has to be done in the education of employers and working on attitudes," says Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. "This type of racial disparity in employment practices really impacts us as a region. It impacts our work force, and it really impacts how the inner-city moves forward."

Pager chose Milwaukee for her experiment because it is representative of most large metropolitan areas in its size, racial demographics and industrial base, she says.

The study's findings would surprise few African-Americans in this city, who know from experience that this kind of discrimination exists in the job market. Research shows that white Americans, however, have been led to think that direct, racial discrimination of this nature has become less of a problem in our society.

It was even surprising to Pager, a young white woman.

"I expected that there would be an effect of race. I thought the effect of a criminal record would swamp other effects," Pager says. "That assumption was clearly wrong. It really suggests that stereotypes and assumptions about black males are very much a factor in hiring decisions."

Facing tougher odds

The study demonstrates the increased odds black male ex-offenders face in finding employment and successfully reintegrating into the economic mainstream, says Lenard Wells, chairman of the Milwaukee Parole Commission and a former Milwaukee police officer.

"It's as if there's a concerted effort to keep black men from getting employment, to keep them oppressed," says Wells, former president of the League of Martin, an organization of black Milwaukee police officers.

"We say we want to reintegrate individuals into the community. We say that we want to do something about unemployment in the black community, yet we want to pretend that it's a criminal record that prevents blacks from getting jobs. It's blatant, undisputed, racism," he says.

Combine the effects of race and a criminal record, and the problem becomes worse. For instance, only 5% of black men with criminal records received callbacks from employers, the study found.

White men without criminal records fared the best in the Milwaukee-area job market, with 34% receiving callbacks from employers.

Keep in mind that it's illegal to discriminate against applicants with criminal records unless the circumstances of the crime correspond closely to the requirements of the job, says Phoebe Weaver Williams, an associate professor of law at Marquette University who specializes in employment discrimination.

"What's frustrating is that, after so many years of having laws in place, the laws haven't corrected the problem," Weaver Williams says.

Clearly, the study's findings demonstrate that a criminal record closes doors on employment.

Still, employers are averse to taking risks on black applicants, whom they perceive to have criminal tendencies, the study says. For example, black testers were more likely to be asked by employers whether they had any convictions, yet none of the white testers were asked about their criminal histories up front.

Image problems

A couple of factors that work against young black men is their portrayal in the media as gangsters, thugs and rappers on the fringes of society, and the fact that more black men are going to prison than college, according to a report by the U.S. Justice Department.

The sad reality is that the majority of those inmates will be released back into communities where they have little opportunity to obtain legitimate work. Research shows that one of the factors for recidivism is employment.

Black felons face a hostile job market in Milwaukee, says Wendell Hruska, associate director of Project Return, a Milwaukee agency that helps felons and people convicted of misdemeanors find employment.

"Discrimination is very much a problem. That's what we've been hearing from our clients," Hruska says. "A lot of people get discouraged. Unfortunately, many of them give up. You really can't blame people when you've been out there for months putting in applications and you hear nothing back."

This research helps us measure the degree of discrimination that exists in the hiring process.

But the question remains: How do we attack a problem that so affects the economic lives of black men in Milwaukee, where many employers still make hiring decisions colored by fear and misunderstanding?