Writer’s Note (January 10, 2021): I wrote this story nearly five years ago in the middle of a job search. I’m in the middle of another job search and I can tell you that things haven’t changed much.
There is a hesitancy on my part about sharing this because I don’t want to complain and I know that race is not as big a factor as it was say 50 years ago. I still want to believe that my skills will speak for themselves. However, discrimination still exists and it would be wrong to not share that gaining good employment is still a challenge for African Americans.
My dad, who passed away in early 2015, once told me a story about looking for work. Dad moved to Michigan in the early 50s to find work in the auto plants, but before he did that, he and some relatives drove from his native Louisiana to the Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Illinois. They had heard jobs were available and went to apply. When they got there, they were told the plant had no jobs- translation: there were no jobs for black people. So, Dad never got a job at Caterpillar but did get a job at Buick where he worked for nearly 40 years.
Flash forward to the late 1980s. I’m in my junior year of college at Michigan State University. I had heard from a friend that the college newspaper was in need of copy editors, so I went down to apply. I was told by the editor himself that there were no jobs available. When I told my friend, she was surprised since she was told they really needed more copy editors.
In the wake of all the concern about how African Americans are treated by the police, there is another issue that doesn’t get the attention that the police conduct issue gets and that’s in the area of employment. While separated by decades, my Dad and I faced some of the same challenges; that of being judge by the color of your skin instead of your talents. The judging is not as blatant as it was for my Dad, but it is there all the same. I’ve seen how people with fewer skills were able to find meaningful unemployment ahead of me. People who did less work than I didn’t lose their jobs while my job was eliminated. From finding a job to keeping a job, you are always judged differently. It’s something that millions of African Americans have dealt with when it comes to finding and keeping a job.
A recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows that a college degree is not necessarily a ticket to prosperity for African Americans and Hispanics:
A college degree has long been recognized as a great equalizer, a path for minorities to help bridge the economic chasm that separates them from whites. But the report, scheduled to be released on Monday, raises troubling questions about the ability of a college education to narrow the racial and ethnic wealth gap.
“Higher education alone cannot level the playing field,” the report concludes.
Economists emphasize that college-educated blacks and Hispanics over all earn significantly more and are in a better position to accumulate wealth than blacks and Hispanics who do not get degrees. Graduates’ median family income in 2013 was at least twice as high, and their median family wealth (which includes resources like a home, car and retirement account) was 3.5 to 4 times greater than that of nongraduates.
But while these college grads had more assets, they suffered disproportionately during periods of financial trouble.
From 1992 to 2013, the median net worth of blacks who finished college dropped nearly 56 percent (adjusted for inflation). By comparison, the median net worth of whites with college degrees rose about 86 percent over the same period, which included three recessions — including the severe downturn of 2007 through 2009, with its devastating effect on home prices in many parts of the country. Asian graduates did even better, gaining nearly 90 percent.
I’ve seen this happen in my own life. I have a college degree and a post-college degree. But my income is not in keeping with the degrees.
Finding and keeping work has always been a challenge for me. It’s not that I don’t have the skills. After years of feeling that I was just too dumb to get a job, I’ve started to see that my skills in communications, web, and graphic design are pretty good. But over the last few years, I’ve had to go through two layoffs and they have made me think more about the role of race in employment. The first time was when I working at the regional office of a mainline Protestant denomination. I had been their communications/IT person for six years. There was a budget shortfall and among the cost-saving measures was the elimination of my position. You should know I was the only person of color on staff. Despite some concerns from people, the position was terminated and I was looking for another job. That came with a similar position at a local Methodist church. This time I had my husband looking out for me. I had that job for a year and then two days before Christmas I was told again because of budget issues, that my position was terminated.
I can’t say for a fact that these decisions were racist. I can say that in both positions I added value to the organization. I pushed boundaries, started new initiatives, and brought heightened visibility to the organization. None of that protected me from being let go. Meanwhile, in some cases, people who produced less (and were white) were saved from the chopping block.
In both cases, I probably stayed longer than I should, even as I saw dark clouds because I knew it would be hard to find another job easily.
And it has. I should add that I work part-time as the pastor of a small church in a suburb north of St. Paul. It’s not a whole lot which is why I keep looking. I work very part-time as an Office Manager, and while it’s a good job, it’s not what I want to do and it doesn’t pay much. The two together don’t pay all the bills.
The jobs I am looking for are in communications/technology. I’ve had a number of interviews, but nothing came of them. In most of these positions, I would be the only person of color on the staff. I can tell you that there are little things that I’ve noticed prospective employers do that indicate a nervousness of considering to hire someone that is different from the rest of the staff.
There is no smoking gun here. No one said, “let’s go after the black guy.” But you are left wondering. It becomes one of what I like to call “Is it racist or is it Memorex” moment.
Was there some unconscious bias? I don’t know. I can’t say yes, but I can’t rule it out either. The same goes for all those meetings with a friend of a friend about jobs. You give them your resume and you don’t hear back. Was there unconscious bias there as well? I don’t know. All I do know is that I’ve tried all the suggestions people give in job hunts and while I see others (who are white) trying it and having it work, it doesn’t work for me.
My own belief is that there is an implicit bias at work. It’s not intentional, but it is there and it has consequences. Harvard sociologist Sendhil Mullainathan notes the many ways bias appears in the lives of African Americans:
In a 2009 study, Devah Pager, Bruce Western and Bart Bonikowski, all now sociologists at Harvard, sent actual people to apply for low-wage jobs. They were given identical résumés and similar interview training. Their sobering finding was that African-American applicants with no criminal record were offered jobs at a rate as low as white applicants who had criminal records.
These kinds of methods have been used in a variety of research, especially in the last 20 years. Here are just some of the general findings:
When doctors were shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients — even when their medical files were statistically identical to those of white patients.
When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.
Several studies found that sending emails with stereotypically black names in response to apartment-rental ads on Craigslist elicited fewer responses than sending ones with white names. A regularly repeatedstudy by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sent African-Americans and whites to look at apartments and found that African-Americans were shown fewer apartments to rent and houses for sale.
White state legislators were found to be less likely to respond to constituents with African-American names. This was true of legislators in both political parties.
Emails sent to faculty members at universities, asking to talk about research opportunities, were more likely to get a reply if a stereotypically white name was used.
Even eBay auctions were not immune. When iPods were auctioned on eBay, researchers randomly varied the skin color on the hand holding the iPod. A white hand holding the iPod received 21 percent more offers than a black hand.
The silent bias, the thing that people aren’t even aware of can have an amazing impact on the lives of African Americans and not for the better.
All of this affects African Americans in many ways, but the one that I think about a lot is retirement. In these days of 410ks and IRAs, it’s hard to save for your golden years when you get laid off and it takes a year or two to find a job where you can start saving again. That’s been my experience and I’m pretty sure that other African Americans are feeling the same thing.
In 2013 Yolonda Spivey had spent a while looking for work and wondered if race had anything to do with it. She created a fake persona who was white and named her Bianca. This is what happened:
First, I created an email account and resume for Bianca. I kept the same employment history and educational background on her resume that was listed on my own. But I removed my home phone number, kept my listed cell phone number, and changed my cell phone greeting to say, “You have reached Bianca White. Please leave a message.” Then I created an online Monster.com account, listed Bianca as a White woman on the diversity questionnaire, and activated the account.
That very same day, I received a phone call. The next day, my phone line and Bianca’s email address, were packed with potential employers calling for an interview. I was stunned. More shocking was that some employers, mostly Caucasian-sounding women, were calling Bianca more than once, desperate to get an interview with her. All along, my real Monster.com account was open and active; but, despite having the same background as Bianca, I received no phone calls. Two jobs actually did email me and Bianca at the same time. But they were commission only sales positions. Potential positions offering a competitive salary and benefits all went to Bianca.
At the end of my little experiment, (which lasted a week), Bianca White had received nine phone calls — I received none. Bianca had received a total of seven emails, while I’d only received two, which again happen to have been the same emails Bianca received. Let me also point out that one of the emails that contacted Bianca for a job wanted her to relocate to a different state, all expenses paid, should she be willing to make that commitment. In the end, a total of twenty-four employers looked at Bianca’s resume while only ten looked at mines.
She then shares a real experience of someone with little to no experience being offered a job with a six-figure salary. It was what spurred Yolonda to create Bianca in the first place:
I embarked on this little experiment because of a young woman I met while I was in school. She was a twenty-two-year-old Caucasian woman who, like myself, was about to graduate. She was so excited about a job she had just gotten with a well-known sporting franchise. She had no prior work experience and had applied for a clerical position, but was offered a higher post as an executive manager making close to six figures. I was curious to know how she’d been able to land such a position. She was candid in telling me that the human resource person who’d hired her just “liked” her and told her that she deserved to be in a higher position. The HR person was also Caucasian.
I don’t know what the answer is here. Some would say this a perfect reason for affirmative action and while there is some need for that, it still leaves African Americans out of the social networks that help whites in employment. No doubt there has to be more acknowledgment of implicit racial bias in the workplace and conscious efforts to combat it.
While America deals with this, I still have to find work. As we all know, the tech-related job market is not good for persons of color. I have to gird myself and hope that people will see me as the communications geek that I am and not just some random unknown black guy.
The constant interviewing and resulting rejection are taking their toll on me. I wonder at times if I will ever find a job in this field or will I have to look at jobs I’m overqualified for, but will give me some security.
Actually, I do know what has to be done. It’s up to white Americans to speak up and make a change. For years it seemed that it was up to people of color to do something to get noticed. But the thing is, it is not my problem. I didn’t create this problem. As Erica Baker, a tech executive who works at Slack and wrote a great essay on racism in tech has said that minorities need fewer allies and more accomplices. Whites need to do more than say it’s bad that minorities are facing these problems, they need to call out the bias and have a role in getting minorities in the door.
So for me to be able to have a good-paying job, to be able to save properly towards retirement, then it is up to whites to do more than feel sorry about the situation.
But for right now it’s back to the drawing board for me.
*I should add that I also have Aspergers, an autism spectrum disorder that can also bring its own challenges to job hunting and retention.