New Study Shows We’re Not Post-Racial When It Comes to Hiring Decisions

In the Obama era, black college grads haven’t fared very well. Here’s one theory as to why: bias.

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Graduates participate in Howard University's 146th commencement exercises May 10, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images for DKC

A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research reinforces a reality that many of us have long understood and that is well-documented: African-American unemployment has been nearly double that of white Americans throughout much of the last five years.

What has not been as widely covered is that racial disparities in unemployment cut across class lines. Among the report’s most devastating findings is the fact that even black Americans with a college degree are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to find employment. According to the study, “A College Degree Is No Guarantee” (pdf), last year 12.4 percent of black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed, while the unemployment rate for all college graduates in that age group was 5.6 percent. The report also notes that between 2007 and 2013, the unemployment rate for black recent college graduates nearly tripled.

Many young black Americans were brought up with the promise that a college education would be the shield to protect them from the poverty and economic pitfalls that have plagued so much of their community, and yet that promise is now being broken. So what gives? Or, more specifically, who, or what, is to blame?

If you ask the Republican National Committee, the answer is simple: President Barack Obama. In a statement to The Root, RNC spokesman Orlando Watson wrote, “As black college graduates cross the stage with diplomas in hand, the next challenge they face is a dismal job market made worse by President Obama’s policies. As Democrats continue to suffocate the economy, Republicans are working on policies that build ladders of opportunity and remove the roadblocks to job creation. This way, we increase graduates’ job prospects and build a better future.”

That’s certainly one theory. But here’s another: bias. 

Before the eye rolling begins, let me be clear. I am not saying that recruiters are secretly plotting ways to keep young black applicants unemployed. What I am saying, though, is that they don’t have to, and yet the end results will be the same: biased recruiting and hiring policies that adversely affect minority applicants.

Here’s what I mean: Newly published research indicates that most of our thinking about modern-day discrimination is wrong. Contrary to our beliefs, much of the discrimination that is alive and well is being unintentionally perpetrated by people who genuinely have no idea they are doing so. According to researchers Tony Greenwald and Thomas Pettigrew, today few people intentionally try to deprive others of opportunities because of race or other similar characteristics. Instead, they bestow favoritism on others they consider like them.

So, for instance, let’s say that neither of your parents attended college, but you are an African-American student who graduates from an Ivy League institution. You should have a pretty good head start in the job market, right? And you probably will, unless the choice comes down to hiring you or a classmate of yours who attended the same Ivy League institution, but whose parents also attended that school and were in the same graduating class as a prominent person at the institution doing the hiring.

Your classmate will have a built-in advantage that you—and, frankly, most other minorities—will not be able to compete with. In other words, the same uneven playing field of legacy admissions at institutions of higher learning that many of us complain about also results in an uneven playing field in the real world. Except that the favoritism doesn’t stop with where graduates’ parents went to school. It may have to do with the church they attend or the country club to which they belong. 

Many of the gatekeepers to the halls of power remain white, which means that many times, those unknowingly looking to hire people whom they consider similar to themselves wind up being white, too. And graduates of color find themselves in an unenviable position: They live in an age when black Americans have more opportunity than ever before, with most of the legal barriers to equality gone. But now they find themselves victims of forms of discrimination that aren’t enshrined in law, and are therefore harder to address and eradicate.

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