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Behind The Smoking Gun


People who wonder why a majority of African Americans do not support George W. Bush’s illegal and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq might want to talk to a black gentleman and fellow Chicagoan I know named Tony. They should also review some recent and important research on hiring discrimination in and around Chicago, to be discussed below.

Tony possesses “only” a High School degree but enjoys greater political and sociological wisdom than most of America’s college-certified population, including many high academics. He recently posed an excellent question after relating a media commentator’s remarks to the effect that the US was going to bring justice and democracy to Iraq. “How,” Tony asked me, “you gonna export something you ain’t even got at home?”

One does not devalue the moral bases of blacks’ skepticism regarding Bush’s foreign policy by noting that African-Americans are in a special position to see with special clarity through the disingenuous and narcissistic pretensions of the White House’s declared overseas intentions. Similarly, one can debate the extent to which America enjoys a functioning democracy and a serious national commitment to justice. There is no denying, however, the simple fact that equality remains an elusive goal for African-Americans more than three and a half decades after the historic victories of the Civil Rights Movement. In a nation that possesses the highest poverty rate, and the largest gaps between rich and poor, in the industrialized world, blacks are considerably poorer than whites and other racial and ethnic groups. Economic inequality correlates closely with race.

Tony’s and my beloved city of Chicago is no exception to the national pattern. According to a recent analysis of (2000) US census and state labor market data by the Chicago Urban League:

The median income for white families ($62, 680) in Chicago at the turn of the millennium was nearly twice that of black families ($32,776).

The unemployment rate for black Chicagoans (18.3 percent) was four times the unemployment rate for white Chicagoans (4.6 percent).

The poverty rate for black Chicago residents was 29 percent, compared to just 8 percent for white Chicago residents.

In the Chicago metropolitan area, blacks live on average in neighborhoods with incomes just 59 percent as high as incomes in neighborhoods inhabited by average whites.

Especially telling, Chicago’s black community makes up 37 percent of Chicago’s population but accounts for 58 percent of Chicago’s poor. It makes up 13 percent of the Chicago metropolitan area’s population but contributes 38 percent of the metropolitan area’s poor. It makes up 9 percent of the state’s population but accounts for 25 of the state’s poor people.


“We Made the Corrections”

Despite abundant factual material demonstrating persistent deep racial inequality in Chicago and the nation, however, conventional majority wisdom in America denies that racial discrimination plays a significant role in American life. “As white America sees it,” note academic researchers Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown, “every effort has been made to welcome blacks into the American mainstream and now they’re on their own.” Predominant American attitudes at the turn of the millennium are well summarized by the comment of a white respondent to a survey conducted by Essence magazine. “No place that I’m aware of,” wrote the respondent, “makes [black] people ride on the back of the bus or use a different restroom in this day and age. We got the message; we made the corrections – [now] get on with it.”

The Smoking Gun: Measuring Pure Racial Bias

A recent testing study performed by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (LAFC), with technical support from the Chicago Urban League (CUL), suggests a different perspective, one which acknowledges that many “corrections” continue to be required. It reveals a “smoking gun” of pure racial hiring bias in a key and growing metropolitan job sector, consistent with other recent matched-pair testing studies. “Current labor market trends – the decline of manufacturing, the growth in the retail and service sectors, and the shift of jobs from the City to the suburbs – mean,” the LAF and CUL note, “that suburban retail and service firms offer important employment opportunities for urban low-wage workers. But for low-income urban Blacks, the location and skills mismatches created by these shifts” are exacerbated by white employers’ racial biases, particularly in jobs requiring public contact.

The first “mismatch” refers to African-Americans’ disproportionately great geographic distance from the leading spatial zones of job growth. The second refers to the relative shortage among African-Americans of the skills, training, work experience and education sought by employers in a high-tech post-industrial age.

To better understand the role of race in hiring, the LAF conducted matched-pair testing of employment opportunities for Blacks in entry-level managerial positions in retail firms in the Chicago suburbs. Their Black and White job seekers “all had the appropriate qualifications and experience for the positions they sought, and none of them faced any transportation obstacles.” Thus, their study “made race, and not skills or space, the salient difference between Black and White job-seekers.”

The results suggest that the deck still remains stacked against blacks. When LAF sent resumes of qualified Black and White job applicants to employers who advertised positions, employers contacted nearly one-third of the White applicants for interviews, but only one-fourth of the Black applicants – giving Whites a 21% higher chance of being contacted for an interview.

When the LAF sent matched pairs of Black and White women to apply for jobs in person, Whites received job offers 81% of the time, while Blacks received offers 70% of the time – giving Whites a 16% higher chance of getting a job offer. Moreover, when job offers specified the numbers of hours an employee would be needed, Whites were offered an average of 36 hours of work a week, while Blacks were offered only 28 hours. At the average wage paid by the employers tested ($8.86/hour), that difference translates into a pay difference of almost $4,000 a year. (See Chicago Urban League and Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, Racial Preferences and Suburban Employment Opportunities, April 2003.)

These findings of anti-black hiring bias are consistent with other and larger employment testing projects. Researchers Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago’s (UC) School of Business and Sendhil Mullainathan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently sent out over 5,000 resumes testing 1,300 job openings in Boston and Chicago. Using birth records to determine the most prevalent black and white sounding names, they found that resumes with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks compared to black-sounding names. Also interesting: white applicants with better credentials received 30 percent more callbacks for white applicants overall, but better credentials did not improve the rate of callbacks for black applicants. (Sendhill Mullainathan and Marianne Bertrand, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” National Bureau of Economic Research, 2002).


Behind the Smoking Gun: The Color (and Gender) of the Spatial, Skill and Criminal Record Gaps

I can already hear the howls of derision from America’s army of racism-deniers – a group that includes some African Americans (e.g. the Manhattan Institute’s John McWhorter, the black author of * Losing The Race: Self Sabotage in Black America * (NY: Free Press, 2000). The members of this army surely see the sort of research reported here as a futile and last-ditch attempt to twist statistics in defense of the archaic and “self-sabotaging” (for blacks) notion that skin color still matters in “the world’s greatest multiracial democracy.”

Timing and Network Complications

The truth, however, is that matched-pair employment testing as conducted in these studies actually understates the extent to which deeply entrenched institutional racism still blocks equal opportunity for blacks in the labor market. The tests conducted by the LAF and CUL, it should be noted, were carried out at the end of the long 1990s economic boom, under conditions of atypically high labor demand. Since hiring discrimination increases dramatically with the size of the unemployed reserve army of labor, the testing project certainly underestimates the current extent of racial discrimination in hiring. At the same time, by testing only jobs that were advertised in the newspaper, on the Internet, or on signs in store windows, LAF necessarily filtered out employers’ whose preference for white employees leads them to rely exclusively on informal job networks and to shun open recruitment avenues.

The Matter of Gender

Then there’s LAF and CUL’s exclusive use of female testers, appropriate given the job sector they were examining. In his landmark study When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, sociologist William Julius Wilson found that employer bias against African-American workers in the Chicago area was highly informed by gender. He cited the University of Chicago’s Urban Poverty and Family Life Study (UPFL), which interviewed 179 employers in Chicago and Cook County. “Although black women also suffer as a consequence of the negative attitudes held by employers,” Wilson reported, “in an overwhelming majority of cases in which inner-city black males and females are compared, the employers preferred black women.” When UPFL researchers asked for employers’ opinions concerning differences between these two categories, nearly half of the employers claimed that black females are better than black males at finding and retaining employment. As is clear from the numerous long employer quotations presented in the chilling fifth chapter of When Work Disappears, Chicago area employers interviewed by the UPFL were much more likely to hire black females than black males.

A Statistical Illusion: Not-So “Color Blind” Social and Policy Disparities

The LAFC-CUL and the UC/MIT studies rest fundamentally upon the creation of a statistical illusion – an ideal situation in which black and white job seekers are equally matched to labor market opportunities, employers’ needs, and employers’ preferences in every area but race. The real world is different, of course, thanks, among other things, to the aforementioned “mismatches.”

Academic and civil rights analysts make a critical error when they see the skills and spatial mismatches as “color-blind” structural and socioeconomic rivals to race and racism as the main barrier to black labor market inequality. That’s because these gaps are themselves heavily racialized, reflecting public policies that work to the disadvantage of African-Americans.

These gaps are technically exogenous to the hiring process. They are not legally actionable in the same way as pure racial hiring discrimination. But they are not exogenous to race and they are not unrelated to policy and law.

It is no simple accident or tragic legacy of past racism and segregation that 98 percent of the Chicago metropolitan area’s job growth (as measured by the Illinois Department of Employment Security) during the 1990s occurred in the suburbs, outside Chicago. Just 2 percent occurred within the city, which happens to house more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the metropolitan area’s black population. A large number of living breathing contemporary public practices and policies go a long way towards explaining the disproportionate spatial separation between African-American residence and job growth patterns in the Chicago metropolitan area and across the nation.

The relevant practices and policies are richly documented by a number of respectable civic organizations and academics. They include the still widely documented and technically illegal practices of racial steering, whereby real estate agents tend to direct black house and apartment seekers away from white majority communities, and racial discrimination in the granting of home mortgage loans. The public privileging of private auto over public transit combines with various zoning rules and the nation’s regressive school funding formula to keep African-Americans out of more job-rich white majority suburban communities.

A similar and related point cries out to be made about the skill mismatch, intimately related to the much-bemoaned black-white school achievement gap. There’s a fair amount of publicity given to depressing numbers showing that blacks score lower on standardized tests, are much less likely to finish high school and to attend and graduate from college than are whites in Chicago, Illinois and the nation. These numbers have huge significance for the black-white employment and earnings gaps in an age when the college earnings premium is at its highest and powerful forces are dedicated to rolling back affirmative action in higher education.

What we don’t hear nearly enough about is the significant extent to which these gaps are created, reinforced and sustained by active contemporary public policy. The public school black-white Dissimilarity Score for the Chicago metropolitan era is 84, meaning that 84 percent of black public school students there would have to move to a different school if blacks were to be evenly distributed throughout the area. The average African-American public school student in the Chicago metropolitan area attends a school that is 78.2 percent black.

The schools remain unequal as well as separate, reflecting profound school funding inequities that are inherent in America’s decision to finance education largely out of local property taxes. In the Chicago area as throughout the nation, elementary analysis of the relationship between local school funding and schools’ level of need shows that the most privileged communities tend to receive the greatest level of funding and the most impoverished schools receive considerably less per student.

Compared to the predominantly white suburban school districts that send kids to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Chicago’s predominantly black and Hispanic inner city schools are poorly funded, over-crowded, and over-burdened with kids from severely impoverished backgrounds. They are disproportionately staffed with under-certified teachers and tend to lack an adequate measure of computer-age instructional technologies. Reflecting metropolitan residential hyper-segregation and the inextricably linked relationships between race, wealth, and local property tax base, the best funded school districts in the Chicago metropolitan area – those with the most to offer students – tend to be very disproportionately white.

The white suburban school funding and school quality advantages might be alleviated to some extent if the heavily minority Chicago public school district was permitted to include nearby suburbs in its desegregation plan. In 1974, the United States Supreme Court declared inter-district desegregation unconstitutional. The high court thereby legitimized de facto segregation as a legal means of keeping black and white students separate and unequal. It entrenched and codified the suburban white educational advantage, writing into law the right, even the duty, of public authorities to ensure that school racial compositions reflect the racially segregated demographics of city and suburbs.

When it comes to older black youths and young adults, particularly males, government authorities in Illinois seem more interested in incapacitating their labor market chances through an expensive investment in incarceration than in preparing them for meaningful labor market attachment. It costs $20,637 a year to house an adult prisoner and $50, 286 to incarcerate a juvenile in Illinois. The cost of incarcerating one adult in Illinois is equal to more than four and a half times the state’s legally mandated public education “foundation level” of $4,560 – the minimum expenditure legally required to meet the educational needs of a single child. The cost of incarcerating a juvenile is more than five times the cost of sending them as full time students to the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It is especially disturbing, in light of these statistics, to learn that, as the Chicago Urban League discovered last year, there were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than enrolled in the state’s public universities in the summer of 2001. In fact, there were more black males in the state’s correctional facilities just on drug charges than the total number of black males enrolled in undergraduate degree programs in Illinois state universities.

“The Criminal Record “Mismatch”

The most spectacular and yet least well-known way in which living racially disparate law and public policy generates racial labor market inequality behind the smoking gun in the Chicago area relates to the criminal justice system. Thanks to the regime of racially disparate mass surveillance, arrest and incarceration that has emerged largely under the auspices of the War on Drugs during the last 25-30 years, Black male ex-felons are equivalent in number to 42 percent of the black male workforce in the Chicago area. This is a fact of no small significance for labor market inequality by race – something that other scholars and I have written about in other venues (see especially The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Community and Jobs in Chicago, Illinois and The Nation, Chicago: Chicago Urban League, October 2002, available online at www.cul-chicago.org, click on “Research Reports Available Online”). Reviewing the negative labor market consequences of mass incarceration – including its artificial suppression of the true black male unemployment rate, which stood at 39 percent in the mid-1990s when prisoners were factored in (which they are not in government calculations) – Princeton sociologist Bruce Western has recently concluded that:


the penal system has a pervasive influence on the life chances of disadvantaged minorities … Although typically the preserve of criminology, incarceration appears to shape aspects of inequality that are of traditional interest to stratification researchers.


It seems likely that status attainment, school-to-work transitions, and family structure are all influenced, perhaps even routinely, by the penal system in the current period of high incarceration. From this perspective, the usual list of institutional influences on social stratification – schools, the families, and social policy – should be expanded to consider the coercive redistribution of life chances through incarceration.

Racism’s Different Levels

The main problem with majority white racial attitudes at the turn of the Millennium is a failure to distinguish between overt and covert racism. The first variety has a long and sordid history in the United States. It includes such actions, policies and practices as the burning of black homes and black churches, the public use of derogatory racial slurs and epithets, the open banning of blacks from numerous occupations, the open political disenfranchisement of blacks and the open segregation of public facilities by race.

The first variety of racism is largely defeated, outlawed and discredited in the US. Witness the rapid public humiliation and political demotion of Trent Lott, who lost his position as Senate Majority Leader after verbally embracing the openly segregationist 1948 Presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond.

The second variety involves the more impersonal operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that produce deep black disadvantage in the labor market and numerous other sectors of American life. It includes racially segregated real estate practices, racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, the systematic under-funding and under-equipping of schools predominantly attended by blacks relative to schools predominantly attended by whites, the disproportionate surveillance, arrest and incarceration of blacks and much more. Richly enabled by policymakers who commonly declare allegiance to anti-racist ideals, it has an equally ancient history that has outlived the explicit, open and public racism of the past and the passage of civil rights legislation.

It may actually be deepened by these civil rights victories insofar as those victories encourage the illusion of racism’s disappearance and the strongly related notion that the only barriers left to African-American success and equality are internal to individual blacks and their community. As Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown note, “it is hard to blame people” for falsely believing that racial discrimination has been essentially abolished in America “when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress towards achieving it.” Episodes like the recent demotion of Trent Lott may actually offer a potentially dangerous new opportunity for the nation to pat itself on the back for advancing beyond the primitive state of level-one racism while digging the hole of the deeper racism yet deeper.

In seeking to expose that persistent deep racism, it is crucial to realize that it continues to operate against African-Americans who have overcome or avoided some of the society’s broader racially disparate structural forces by attaining the skills and credentials required to access modern labor market opportunities. This is the great contribution of matched-pair employment testing. We need, however, to go yet deeper, behind the smoking gun of pure discrimination to see that spatial, skill, and criminal record “mismatches” are themselves deeply colored by and expressive of a covert racism that involves special white fear and loathing toward males within the African-American population.





Paul Street is Director of Research at the Chicago Urban League. His articles and essays have appeared in Z Magazine, Monthly Review, the Journal of American Ethnic History and Dissent. He is the author of The Color of Opportunity: Race, Place, Policy and Labor Market Inequality in the Chicago Metropolitan Area. (See also, Chicago Urban League and Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, Racial Preferences and Suburban Employment Opportunities, April 2003.)

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