by Salim Muwakkil
In a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, black conservative Shelby Steele maintained, "The great lie of today's black protest is that racism still holds blacks back. It does not."
That is the conservative critique of the civil-rights movement: Racism is over, let's move on.
That canard has trickled down into mainstream society, and many white Americans now believe that race no longer affects personal prospects of success or failure.
A recent Gallup Poll asked, "Do you feel that racial minorities in this country have equal job opportunities as whites, or not?" Fifty-five percent of whites polled said yes. Other polls have revealed similar numbers.
In some ways, those sentiments are understandable. This nation has made progress in discouraging expressions of overt bigotry. But racial disparities persist, and many analysts trace them to biased cultural attitudes that, because they are so deeply woven into the fabric of American life, they are virtually invisible.
But according to recent studies, overt racial discrimination is still easy to find.
In one of the most innovative of these new studies, Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan of MIT measured the extent of race-based job discrimination in the current labor market.
Their study is titled "Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" The re searchers sent fictitious resumes in response to help-wanted ads, each randomly assigned either a white-sounding name (Emily Walsh, Brendan Baker) or a black-sounding name (Lakisha Washington, Jamal Jones).
The study found that applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with black-sounding names. What's more, higher quality resumes provided little advantage for black applicants.
Less employment for blacks
"For us, the most surprising and disheartening result is seeing that applicants with African-American names were not rewarded for having better resumes," Bertrand said.
Two other recent studies found similar results through the use of matched-pair testing. The Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Chicago Urban League gauged the extent to which race affected the employment opportunities for blacks in the Chicago suburbs.
The study found that when white and black job seekers had the appropriate qualifications and experience for the position, whites were far more likely to be called back than blacks. A Chicago Urban League analysis of the data concluded that the study actually understated the extent to which "deeply entrenched racism still blocks equal opportunity for blacks in the labor market."
Northwestern University sociologist Devah Pager conducted an experiment in Milwaukee that dispatched white and black men with and without prison records to job interviews. Not surprisingly, whites without drug busts on their applications did best; blacks with drug busts did worst. However, white applicants with prison records were still more likely to be hired than black men without one.
Not yet a colorblind society
This issue is particularly relevant to a black community in which high numbers of black youth spend time in the criminal justice system. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics projects that 30 percent of black boys who turn 12 this year will spend time in jail in their lifetimes, if current incarceration rates stay constant.
A 2000 study by Human Rights Watch found enormous differences in the white/black rate of imprisonment for drug use in the United States. The study found the greatest disparity is Illinois, where blacks were jailed for selling or using drugs at 57 times the rate of whites.
These studies make clear that racial biases persist. Those who claim we've arrived at a colorblind society are blinding themselves to reality.
Copyright 1996-2003 Knight Ridder
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