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Connerly's Unreal World

October 04, 2003

Maybe in Ward Connerly's world, race is merely what he calls a "sociopolitical phenomenon." In that world, we can do away with the relevance of race by ordering government agencies to stop racial cataloging, as his brainchild, Proposition 54, would require. His vision has won nationwide advocates who suggest that if government stopped officially taking note of race, its influence on lives would end.

That optimism is blind to a flurry of recent research documenting the unyielding disadvantage black skin carries in the job market.

The latest study, by Northwestern University sociologist Devah Pager, found that employers would rather hire a white man just out of prison than a black man with an unstained record. Pager had college students pose as job seekers at 350 Milwaukee-area companies advertising entry-level positions. The young men were assigned similar backgrounds, with one exception: The white candidates told employers they'd served 18 months in prison for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. The black applicants had no criminal record. Still, the white "ex-cons" were called back for interviews 17% of the time, whereas the crime-free black applicants were called back in only 14% of cases.

The results confirm an earlier study demonstrating that job seekers with names like Brendan and Emily were 50% more likely to generate calls from employers than those with so-called African American names like Tyrone or Tamika, even when their resumes were identical. A "white" name on a resume was as valuable as eight years of work experience.

Both studies mirror results from an 8-year-old project that found blacks 24% less likely to be offered a job than equivalent white candidates, when both made it through the interview process.

Researcher Pager suggests that Americans' "strong and persistent negative stereotypes" about blacks account for the disheartening findings. Others blame strained race relations in Milwaukee -- America's second-most-segregated city -- for skewing the results. But if the "why" of the results is open to debate, the "what" seems unambiguous.

In the real world, bias still exists, and the effect of race cannot be diminished by denying it exists. The effect of race on employment opportunity is painfully clear. You'd have to be more than colorblind to miss it.

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