There’s a comforting-to-white-people fiction about racism and racial inequality in the United States today: They’re caused by a small, recalcitrant group who cling to their egregiously inaccurate beliefs in the moral, intellectual and economic superiority of white people.
The reality: racism and racial inequality aren’t just supported by old ideas, unfounded group esteem or intentional efforts to mistreat others, said Nancy DiTomaso, author of the new book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism. They’re also based on privilege, she said — how it is shared, how opportunities are hoarded and how most white Americans think their career and economic advantages have been entirely earned, not passed down or parceled out.
The way that whites, often unconsciously, hoard and distribute advantage inside their almost all white networks of family and friends is one of the driving reasons that in February just 6.8 percent of white workers remained unemployed while 13.8 percent of black workers and 9.6 percent of Hispanic workers were unable to find jobs, DiTomaso said.
This week, the professor of organization management at Rutgers University and her ideas have captured the attention of the business press. There was a blog about her book in The Wall Street Journal and a story in Bloomberg Businessweek. DiTomaso, who is white, has gathered evidence that racism and inequality actively shape the labor market and make it far harder for black workers to find jobs.
“Across all three states where I did my research, I heard over and over again [white] people admitting that they don’t interact very often with nonwhites, not at work, not at home or otherwise,” said DiTomaso about the 246 interviews with working-class and middle-class whites she did over the course of about a decade in Tennessee, Ohio and New Jersey. Her research included detailed job histories and information about the way her study participants obtained jobs over the course of their careers.
“That was true for just about everybody unless they were still in college,” DiTomaso continued. “Others would allude to some college friend or experience. But since then, they had not had much contact with blacks. So how would they pass opportunities and information across race lines?”
DiTomaso concludes, based on her research, that most white Americans engage, at least a few times per year, in the activities that foster inequality. While they may not deliberately discriminate against black and other non-white job seekers, they take actions that make it more likely that white people will be employed — without thinking that what they’re doing amounts to discrimination.
“The vast majority assumed everyone has the same opportunities, and they just somehow tried harder, were smarter,” DiTomaso said of those she interviewed. “Not seeing how whites help other whites as the primary way that inequality gets reproduced today is very helpful. It’s easy on the mind.”
So white Americans tell a neighbor’s son about a job, hire a friend’s daughter, carry the resume of a friend (or, for that matter, a friend’s boyfriend’s sister) into the boss’s office, recommend an old school mate or co-worker for an unadvertised opening, or just say great things about that job applicant whom they happen to know. But since most Americans, white and black, live virtually segregated lives, and since advantages, privileges and economic progress have already accrued in favor of whites, the additional advantages that flow from this help go almost exclusively to whites, DiTomaso said.
DiTomaso’s findings aren’t exactly new, said Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington-based think tank.
“Listen, I think it’s an important piece of work to reiterate and clarify the ways in which blacks are disadvantaged in the labor market,” Austin said. “Of course, part of the appeal of this is that there’s no malice. You can say no one is to blame. The Businessweek piece says, well, people just like helping out their friends, which is perfectly natural and normal.”
DiTomaso’s work does confirm that networks — not just the kind you build over awkward conversations, finger foods and watered-down cocktails but the kind you’re born into — matter, Austin said. It also points to just how different forms of inequality feed one another. Family-and-friends segregation feeds job and income inequality. That in turn feeds neighborhood and school segregation. That then leaves some kids less likely to receive a quality education and escape from the cycle, he said.
Austin thinks that increased public awareness of opportunity hoarding, as well as public policies that enhance options for blacks and Hispanics, could make a difference. Bringing more blacks into the labor force would have the immediate effect of reducing black poverty, and quality early-childhood education has been proven to blunt some of the short- and long-term effects of childhood poverty, he said.
“To President Obama’s credit, he’s certainly focused on early childhood education,” Austin said.
It’s not that black workers don’t attempt the same sort of job assists within their own networks, said Deirdre Royster, an economic sociologist at New York University and author of Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men From Blue Collar Jobs.
African Americans ask neighbors, significant others, the significant others of neighbors, relatives and friends about open jobs, too. But since black unemployment rates were far higher than white rates before, during and after the recession, the number of people in a typical black social network who are in a position to help is far more limited.
According to Royster, there’s an additional twist: When blacks are aware of a job, they describe the job, the boss, the company and its preferences and needs. Then they follow up with a warning.
“They give the person looking for a job all sorts of information and then they say, ‘But don’t tell them I sent you,'” said Royster.
Black workers are aware of something that researchers are still trying to explain: White bosses often worry, lack of statistical evidence aside, that black workers are more likely to sue them or band together in the workplace and try to change things, Royster said. That seems all the more likely if the black workers already know one another, she said. And many white hiring managers still assume, consciously or unconsciously, that black workers bring undesirable workplace habits and qualities, Royster said.
Indeed, a 2003 study by Devah Pager, now a Princeton University sociologist, found that white men with criminal records were more likely to get callbacks for job interviews than black men with the same qualifications and no criminal history.