July 11, 2020

Is Systemic Racism a Problem in America? It’s Complicated.

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

But the simple answer is, of course!

We Americans abhor racism. At least, the vast majority of us say and believe we do. Overt racism is, to most of us, repugnant. Systemic racism, however, doesn’t require raw bigotry in the workplace, or our schools or community gatherings, or places of entertainment or competition, or in our civil institutions. Systemic racism simply exists when members of one racial group experience more obstacles in life because of their race. We can’t legislate it away. We can only, as individuals, recognize that it exists, and, as individuals, strive to repel it when we see it, either in ourselves or in the public and private institutions around which so much of life revolves.

America has faced its racial issues, especially in the last fifty years. As a nation we have, perhaps belatedly, labored hard to excise racism from the public square. Systemic racism, nonetheless, exists. It is, in no small way, woven into the fabric of life in America, and it is often brutal in its ramifications. A lost job opportunity, as one example, doesn’t merely inflict damage at the moment it occurs, but often for a lifetime.

Evidence of systemic racism can be elusive. Is systemic racism generally the culprit when an equally qualified Black man or woman is passed over in deference to a White job applicant? More than likely, yes. Substantial research demonstrates that being Black can and does cost Black job applicants loss of job opportunities for no other reason than for the color of his or her skin. This is not conjecture. Studies show that Black applicants have about a 50% disadvantage at even getting job interviews compared to equally qualified White applicants.

I looked at two of these studies. One was conducted about a decade ago by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a top-notch, well respected, conservative-leaning research organization focusing on productivity, competitiveness, market structure, business innovation, and economic trends and issues. I also looked at an even more recent Harvard report that explored, pretty much, the same question.

NBER Research Fellows Marianne Bertand and Sendhil  Mullainathan conducted an elaborate field experiment. The results were sobering. Their research team methodically responded to actual help-wanted ads. They sent resumes that were exemplary and pretty much identical in every respect except on half the resumes they used applicant names that appeared to be typically White. On half the resumes they used names that would generally be considered as Black. In other words, one resume from someone named Emily Walsh might compete against an equally qualified applicant named Lakisha Washington.

It’s not easy being black. Applicants with white-sounding names received invitations to interview for the advertised jobs at a 50% higher rate than applicants with black-sounding names. To compound the insult, companies that advertised themselves as “Equal Opportunity Employers” and companies that advertised that they “value diversity” responded with the same bias against applicants with Black sounding names.

The NBER field study was extensive. Over 5,000 resumes were sent to over 1300 companies. The qualifications on the resumes were tailored to each job category for which the applicant applied. The results were stubbornly the same. There was a 50% greater likelihood of getting called in for an interview when the applicant’s name suggested he or she was White. An advantage of the study technique was that the results were based solely on call-backs for interviews, so there was no bias based on the results of an interview. In other words, Black applicants had a 50% lower chance of even getting a foot in the door for an interview. That 50% call-back advantage the White applicants enjoyed, according to NBER, equated to an additional eight years of experience when compared to a resume from a Black applicant. 

A more recent report (2016) co-authored by Dr. Katherine A. DeCelles, a Visiting Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and colleagues from the University of Toronto and Stanford University, came to an identical conclusion through a different methodology. They simply whitened the resumes of an actual sample of Black students along with a matching sample of unwhitened resumes. That is, in one group, all references to any activity that might identify the applicants as Black, such as Black studies courses, Black fraternities or sororities, Black student union membership, or other easily identified Black-oriented activities or organizations were expunged from resumes.

They found that companies are more than twice as likely to call minority applicants for interviews if they submit “whitened resumes” than candidates who reveal their race. Here too, they found that this bias was just as strong for businesses that claim to value diversity as those that don’t.

So, don’t think of systematic racism as insidious as red-lined neighborhoods, segregated schools, and separate restrooms and drinking fountains. Systemic racism is more subtle than that. Think of it simply as a very uneven playing field. Think of it as a world in which it is still harder to get a good job, even when a Black applicant’s qualifications are equal to those of other applicants. Having to settle for a job at less pay has lifelong ramifications.

There is a lingering hangover from the rank viciousness of Jim Crow that morphed from slavery and hung around for over half of the twentieth century. The effects of Jim Crow didn’t leave us with the snap of a finger and the passage of a law.

Old-time racial discrimination may be ailing of old age and decrepitness, but vestiges of the condition hang on. It’s called systemic racism.

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12 responses to “Is Systemic Racism a Problem in America? It’s Complicated.”

  1. Jerry Girsch says:

    Great essay.
    Thanks Hal.

  2. Karen krohn says:

    As always, enjoyed and shared.

  3. Ray Galante says:

    Sobering reality

  4. Jerry Mathews says:

    Very good Hal!

  5. ELEZAR BENJAMIEN aka Leonard Sherman says:

    Well said and it is very sad because it is still tearing America apart after all these years since the abolishment of slavery and because I as a Jewish American I can feel the pain of the African Americans racisim of raw hatred that they suffer Hal if you had written this essay just one hundred years ago and you replaced the words of black/ Africa American with the word Jews then I believe many of my co religionists and fellow American would have a greater understanding what discrimination and hatered do the our great country I pray that some day that each and every person in the Unied States will only be referred to as Americans and no reference to any place that they or there antcencors came to our shores.

  6. qua says:

    As true as these statistics are which mostly are 10 years old
    many blacks today are put at the head of the line in hiring and
    even CNBC announced they were increasing their hiring from a
    now 30 plus percent to at least 50%. If this is systemic racism it
    smacks of reverse racism.

    Any business that hires on the basis of race will find itself not
    being competitive. The winning strategy for business or
    government is hiring the most qualified.
    While we are bringing up race quotas what about Government
    hires in Major Cities run by majority Black administrations?
    Is this reverse racism ?

  7. James Fisher says:

    Thank you, Hal for a very comprehensive look at the significant disadvantage Blacks have in finding employment as compared to their white brethren. The statistics are obviously authentic and very sobering.

    I have to address the elephant in the room, however and ask the basic question.. WHY? Why did the hiring screeners reject those applications believed to be black?

    Is that a racist act in itself or did they have any other reason to not pursue the black application? If so, what is that reason?

    The hiring person is charged with finding the best possible candidate for each position. Were they concerned that the black candidate would not perform as well as the white one? Why?

    A 50% disparity in black/white opportunity means there are a huge number of interviewers who know the answer to that question and it would be interesting for researchers to get those answers.

    I think I can answer my own question. Believing that an equally-qualified black person will not perform to the same standard as an equally-qualified white person is de facto racism regardless of the reasons for that belief.

  8. Steve Hardy says:

    There may be factors other than just bigotry that explain the statistics you quote. For instance, there is a litigation risk in hiring any minority covered by anti-discrimination laws. The only terminated employee who can’t sue you for discrimination is a young white male. As your title suggests, it’s complicated.

  9. Response to Steve Hardy:
    No doubt Mr. Hardy is, to some extent, correct, although not to the extent the data suggest. In any case, we have a systemic bias that places Black Americans at a substantial disadvantage is simply navigating their career opportunities.

  10. Peggy Jacobs says:

    Thank you for showing me what systemic racism is. Your explanation and the results of valid test groups gives us all greater insight. First step to change is to acknowledge the issue.

  11. Stuart Goldfine says:

    If the same applications with black names were replaced with Jewish names, Arab names, or Hispanic names, how many would be turned down? Probably the same percentages as the blacks.

  12. Larry Feldman says:

    As an attorney, I had the opportunity to represent many black individuals under our civil rights laws. Racism in the workplace is sometimes easy to see, other times it’s more difficult, but understand it always exists.

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