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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Racial Discrimination In Hiring Is Still at Work in U.S. by David Wessel

Two young high-school graduates with similar job histories and demeanors apply in person for jobs as waiters, warehousemen or other low-skilled positions advertised in a Milwaukee newspaper. One man is white and admits to having served 18 months in prison for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. The other is black and hasn't any criminal record.

Which man is more likely to get called back?

It is surprisingly close. In a carefully crafted experiment in which college students posing as job applicants visited 350 employers, the white ex-con was called back 17% of the time and the crime-free black applicant 14%. The disadvantage carried by a young black man applying for a job as a dishwasher or a driver is equivalent to forcing a white man to carry an 18-month prison record on his back.

Many white Americans think racial discrimination is no longer much of a problem. Many blacks think otherwise. In offices populated with college graduates, white men quietly confide to other white men that affirmative action makes it tough for a white guy to get ahead these days. (If that's so, a black colleague once asked me, how come there aren't more blacks in the corporate hierarchy?)

A recent Gallup poll asked: "Do you feel that racial minorities in this country have equal job opportunities as whites, or not?" Among whites, the answer was 55% yes and 43% no; the rest were undecided. Among blacks, the answer was 17% yes and 81% no.

The Milwaukee and other experiments, though plagued by the shortcomings of research that relies on pretense to explain how people behave, offer evidence that discrimination remains a potent factor in the economic lives of black Americans.

"In these low-wage, entry-level markets, race remains a huge barrier. Affirmative-action pressures aren't operating here," says Devah Pager, the sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who conducted the Milwaukee experiment and recently won the American Sociological Association's prize for the year's best doctoral dissertation. "Employers don't spend a lot of time screening applicants. They want a quick signal whether the applicant seems suitable. Stereotypes among young black men remain so prevalent and so strong that race continues to serve as a major signal of characteristics of which employers are wary."

In a similar experiment that got some attention last year, economists Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology responded in writing to help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston, using names likely to be identified by employers as white or African-American. Applicants named Greg Kelly or Emily Walsh were 50% more likely to get called for interviews than those named Jamal Jackson or Lakisha Washington, names far more common among African-Americans. Putting a white-sounding name on an application, they found, is worth as much as an extra eight years of work experience.

These academic experiments gauge the degree of discrimination, not just its existence. Both suggest that a blemish on a black person's resume does far more harm than it does to a white job seeker and that an embellishment does far less good.

In the Milwaukee experiment, Ms. Pager dispatched white and black men with and without prison records to job interviews. Whites without drug busts on their applications did best; blacks with drug busts did worst. No surprise there. But this was a surprise: Acknowledging a prison record cut a white man's chances of getting called back by half, while cutting a black man's already-slimmer chances by a much larger two-thirds.

"Employers, already reluctant to hire blacks, are even more wary of blacks with proven criminal involvement," Ms. Pager says. "These testers were bright, articulate college students with effective styles of self-presentation. The cursory review of entry-level applicants, however, leaves little room for these qualities to be noticed." This is a big deal given that nearly 17% of all black American men have served some time, and the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics projects that, at current rates, 30% of black boys who turn 12 this year will spend time in jail in their lifetimes.

In the Boston and Chicago experiment, researchers tweaked some resumes to make them more appealing to employers. They added a year of work experience, some military experience, fewer periods for which no job was listed, computer skills and the like. This paid off for whites: Those with better resumes were called back for interviews 30% more than other whites. It didn't pay off for blacks: Precisely the same changes yielded only a 9% increase in callbacks.

Someday Americans will be able to speak of racial discrimination in hiring in the past tense. Not yet.

David Wessel is The Wall Street Journal's deputy Washington bureau chief, he writes the Capital column, a weekly look at the economy and the forces shaping living standards around the world. Mr. Wessel can be reached via e-mail at:

Note: This article first ran in the September 4, 2003 edition of The Wall St. Journal

Copyright 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

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