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.