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Despite Improving Job Market, Blacks Still Face Tougher Prospects


The outlook for jobs has been growing better over the last few years, but there are still many young people looking for work. And things have been especially difficult for African-Americans. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us now because he's come across some new research trying to explore why this would be the case. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: What's the research?

VEDANTAM: Well, the new research is trying to understand why blacks have experienced significantly higher levels of unemployment and underemployment compared to whites in the aftermath the Great Recession, Steve. Some research shows that black college grads have twice the level of unemployment as white college grads. I was speaking with John Nunley. He's an economist at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. Along with his colleagues, he mailed out more than 9,000 resumes in response to online job ads. And for each ad, the researchers mailed out four resumes with different names. Some of the names were Claire Kruger and Cody Baker - typical white names. Other names were Ebony Booker and to DeShawn Jefferson. These are more typically black names, Steve. Nunley and his colleagues analyzed how likely the different resumes were to trigger a callback, a request for an interview. Here he is.

JOHN NUNLEY: The black name applicants in our study received about 14 percent lower callback rate than otherwise identical white applicants.

INSKEEP: Ouch, that sounds awful. Although at the same time, I feel that I've heard this story before, this question of identical resumes but with different racial cues. Is there something new and even more disturbing here?

VEDANTAM: You're right, there is an element to the study that's not counterintuitive. But it's applying this earlier body of work to this newer group of workers - young workers, often people looking for their second job, maybe in their 20s.

INSKEEP: So this is another generation that is being affected by this bias, even though we'd like to think things are getting better in 2015.

VEDANTAM: Precisely. Now, all the jobs in this experiment were business jobs - insurance, banking, finance, sales and marketing. There were many jobs for which there was actually very little disparity between the resumes with the black names and the white names. But Nunley and his colleagues find there's one set of jobs that accounted for much of the overall disparity, and these are jobs that involve some kind of customer interaction.

NUNLEY: In customer-related jobs, we found that black applicants were about 28 percent less likely to receive a positive response or a callback compared to otherwise identical white applicants.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute - why would a company be willing to hire an African-American for a back-office job, but reluctant to hire an African-American to be the maître d' at the restaurant or the salesperson in the car showroom?

VEDANTAM: You know, we actually don't know the answer to that question, Steve. The researchers didn't go to the companies and say why did you select this resume, but not this one? For whatever reason, companies seem to believe their customers prefer to interact with whites rather than blacks. We don't know if this is because companies are biased and mistakenly think their customers prefer to interact with whites or whether customers are actually biased and companies are catering to those biases. Either way, of course, it's discrimination.

INSKEEP: OK, so are there other differences that you see as you look through this data of resumes being submitted with black-sounding names and white-sounding names?

VEDANTAM: There was one other thing that really jumped out at me. And as Nunley and his colleagues find, there appears to be a bigger racial disparity between highly-qualified whites and highly-qualified blacks compared to low-qualified whites and low-qualified blacks.

INSKEEP: Wait, so you're African-American. You got a college degree, maybe a graduate degree. You've got good experience. You're getting ahead in life. But as you go forward, life becomes less equal instead of more.

VEDANTAM: It is certainly the case that more qualified African-Americans do better than less qualified African-Americans. But what they're also finding is that the disparity between whites and blacks grows as qualifications increase. So in other words, if you're an African-American, climbing the hill is a good idea. But even as you climb the hill, the hill keeps getting steeper and steeper.

INSKEEP: Shankar thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He regularly joins us to talk about social science research and explores the world of unconscious bias and other topics on his podcast "Hidden Brain." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.