We’ve got a job to do

I remember my first job interview. I had applied for a position as a stock boy at a bulk food store, and the owner called me on the phone the day after I dropped off my resume. My interview was one question, three words: “are you big?” I replied that I was, indeed, big. “Come in and start tomorrow,” was the reply. I was there for nearly 3 years. Since that time I’ve taught violin, I’ve packed boxes onto trucks, I’ve managed an amusement park cleaning crew (easily the worst job I’ve ever had), I’ve been a doorman, a karaoke host (easily the best job I’ve ever had), and spent two mortifying shifts serving tables in a tapas restaurant. None of those jobs were particularly hard to get – in fact, when I was offered my current job I could scarcely believe it and spent the first year dreading the day when my boss would realized they hired the wrong guy.

At no point in my various job searches did I really actively stress over race. Like most people I’ve been rejected from more jobs than I’ve been given – even then, it never occurred to me to wonder whether or not race played a role. Why would it? After all, I live in the 21st century, and certainly nobody ever said to me “we don’t hire your kind” or anything so overt as that. I will likely never know the role, positive or negative, that race played in me getting my various jobs. However, I know too much to think that racism isn’t still very much a part of the hiring process:

In contrast to public opinion that assumes little influence of discrimination on labor market inequality, we find that black job applicants are only two thirds as successful as equally qualified Latinos, and little more than half as successful as equally qualified whites. Indeed, black job seekers fare no better than white men just released from prison.

A team based out of Princeton University sent a group of ‘testers’, matched for quality of speech and personal presentability, to apply for jobs with a variety of prepared (fictitious) resumes. The testers had a variety of ethnic backgrounds – one white, one Latino, and one black – and were sent to observe not only the rate of ‘success’ when applying to each job, but also the types of interactions the had with the prospective employers.

The results were, if you’ve been reading this blog for any appreciable amount of time, entirely predictable:

The white applicant had a 23% success rate, the Latino applicant 19%, the black applicant 13%.

Keep in mind, this isn’t in a backwater hick burg in rural Alabama – this is New York City. Even then, being white gave a 10% advantage when applying for entry-level positions, even when qualifications and ostensibly all other potential explanations were experimentally controlled for. Simply being black and male meant you were walking in with a disadvantage? How meaningful a disadvantage? The study goes on to describe a result wherein the white applicant, his resume adjusted to reflect a recent criminal conviction, had the same success rate as the black candidate with a clean record. Essentially, for employers in New York, to be black is to assumed to be a criminal (a prejudice that is certainly reflected in police policy).

The important thing to remember is that, at least in most cases, racism was not an obvious factor in rejection. In fact, both the Latino and black testers reported experiences that seemed sort of positive – they were told that the position had just been filled, but that something might come up soon so they should leave a copy of their resume for future reference. This is reflective of how most people go out and apply for work – they don’t compare and contrast their experience with friends who have similar qualifications but different ethnic backgrounds. They certainly don’t do this over the span of more than two hundred jobs.

Of course, if we did, we might find out some truly disturbing behaviours:

Applicants of colour are "channeled down" into lower-paying jobs. White candidates are sometimes "channeled up" into better jobs than they applied for

So I don’t usually get surprised by these kinds of results, but I didn’t even realize “being talked into a better job than you’re applying for” was a thing. I’ve certainly moved up after I had been hired for a lower position on the ladder. I’ve had employers tell me that they think I’m ready to take on more responsibility. I’ve never even heard of someone being offered a better job than ze was looking for. But apparently if you’re in New York, it happens – so long as you’re white. The suspicious part of this (and the reason why I encourage you to treat this finding with extra skepticism) is that this phenomenon is seen most often in the candidate with the criminal record, which is an odd finding.

We know well that racism lives and thrives in economic spheres beyond the mere fact of employment, and while we Canadians often feel smug in comparison to our Southern neighbours, our superiority is grossly misplaced. It’s worth noting, though, that employment and vocation are not exclusively financial realities. What we do for a living is, at least in North American culture, a reflection of our value as people. A system which disproportionately denies employment to racial minorities also denies them status and membership in society; the same society that bloviating morons like Newt Gingrich then belittle members of those minority communities for not succeeding in.

There are a number of short-term solutions to this process that I could get behind, a blinded hiring process being simplest among them. However, the larger fix to the pervasive, veritably metastatic problem of racism in our modern society cannot be addressed by any policy or legislation. We have to unblind ourselves to the reality that racism (and other prejudices, to be sure) cloud our everyday decision-making. We have to accept the fact that racism can happen without any conscious intention, and that even good people like us are susceptible to it. Most of all, we have to learn how to not be afraid to talk about race, and we have to listen to those on the receiving end who are so often ignored.

Suffice it to say, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

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  1. eigenperson says

    Seems to me that being white didn’t give just a 10% advantage over being black — it gave a 76% percent advantage over being black, in the sense that the white person got 76% more job offers.

  2. ischemgeek says

    I’ve never seen channeling in a racist manner (mainly because most of my job history has been in very ethnically homogeneous areas), but I have seen it in a sexist manner: I was channelled to cash on my first job, at a fast food place. They acted as if I was being channelled up, but I really was being channelled down since even though being on cash came with greater responsibility and slightly better pay, being on grill gave infinitely better advancement prospects, which I learned when I tried to get promoted to trainer. Despite being in the top 15% on cash, the best person on fries, and the most leadership experience of any of the people wanting the job, they told me no – because I didn’t have grill experience. I, of course, couldn’t get trained on grill (despite asking for the past six months to be trained on it) because I was on cash and cash people were hard to come by. Oh, and cash people were >90% female, while on grill, the gender ratio was reversed.

    So it ended up as a glass ceiling, with more guys getting hired to the less-attractive starting position, but then getting promoted over girls with superior performance because decent grill people were a dime a dozen so they could get trained on other stations, but cash people almost seemed to be purposefully limited so we couldn’t cross-train (they consistently hired about twice as many people for grill as for cash – even with equal turnover rates – so cash always had a shortage of trained workers).

    And I ended up doing the job of trainer on the stations I did know without the title or pay.

    This was long before I knew about things like non-discrimination clauses in the law and worker’s rights (like, for example, the fact that if I’m doing a differen’t positions job, I have the right to the title and pay associated with that job in the province I was living in at the time). The management was downright abusive in other areas – I saw one of the managers hit employees on several occasions, and once, I got a 3rd-degree grease burn on my arm and they threatened to fire me if I went to the hospital before my shift was over. So the issues there weren’t just the sex discrimination in hiring and advancement. If I’d known then what I know now, I never would’ve stuck out that POS job for a year and a half. Hilariously, when I gave my notice, they offered the promotion and training I’d spent a year and a half asking for if I’d stay on. I was just incredulous since I just spent the past year and a half watching their asshole assistant manager beat up trainers and supervisors, got threatened out of seeking medical attention for a workplace injury, and being thrown under the bus by management whenever a customer was being a moron, and they thought my lack of advancement was the only reason I wanted to quit?!

    The experience (and my parents’ insistance that abusive asshole bosses are normal so I’d better not quit and go somewhere else lest I make myself look uncommitted) turned me off the food industry entirely – but on the upside, it led me to apply for the museum job I got next, and that was loads of fun (occasional creepers excepted, but if you’re female-bodied, you get them anywhere you deal with the public).

  3. jolo5309 says

    I am in a more technical field than these reports, but I have seen it twice where someone has been channeled up. One was a guy from the Philippines that applied as a Help Desk person and was hired as a Network Supervisor and the second was my wife. She was interviewed for a Help Desk job and was hired as an IT Trainer. This is a pretty small pool of anecdotes though and in Calgary during the boom, so take it for what you will.

  4. frog says

    My interpretation of the whites-with-record being channeled up is that it might be a kind of “support our kind in getting over a bad mark on their record” attitude. Hiring guy* feels bad for white guy* who did something hiring guy interprets as not-serious, e.g. smoking pot, DWI, getting into a bar fight. (“Aw, he was just an ordinary Joe getting caught for the same shit I do!”) Figures he’ll help the dude past the first hurdle and see if that erases the stigma of the conviction for his future.

    Whereas if a black guy has a record for one of those things, he might be viewed as a criminal who probably pled down from something truly bad and therefore the hiring guy turns him down.


    This is an interesting thing, because I suspect I’ve hired black employees on kind of a same principle. (I’m white.) At my old job I needed to hire a new assistant every 9-18 months because they kept getting promoted within the company.**

    Anyhow, there was a little streak there where my assistants were all people from the west Indies (different islands; none of them knew each other). I firmly believe they were all the most qualified candidate, but I sometimes wonder if I was so eager to make sure I wasn’t unconsciously biased that I went a bit the other way. (Which wouldn’t be a crime, dammit!) I work in publishing, which is known for being chock full of white people.

    *I say “guy” because I have a suspicion this attitude would be more likely among/between men, but I admit that’s mostly my ass talking.

    **I strongly believe in hiring assistants who are smart and competent. Smart, competent people don’t usually want to remain assistants forever, and in a large company there are lots of opportunities to move up. And then I sang their praises to the person hiring them for the next step up, on the theory that I would rather have a cadre of allies working their way up the ladder than getting bored working for me.

  5. jamessweet says

    It can’t be emphasized enough that certainly almost none of this discrimination was intentional or conscious — not to protect people from blame, but because there is a tendency to say, “Well, that’s awful.. but I’m not racist, that’s not me.” No, unless you are taking active steps to directly counter this effect, that is you. No matter how racially sensitive or racially progressive you might be. Hell, even if you yourself are a person of color, you’re not immune (if I’m remembering correctly, in one case study I read about from the 90s, one of the groups most likely to express a hiring preference against young black males was middle-aged black business owners).

    The only way to avoid this sort of thing is with active steps, such as deliberate affirmative action, blinding the names and genders on resumes, etc. Simply trying really hard to “not be racist” is totally ineffectual.

  6. John Horstman says

    Ah, it’s a semantic ambiguity. White applicants’ callback rate was higher by 10% of the total applications: 23% of the total versus 13% of the total for Black applicants. White applicants’ callback rate was also 176.92% that of Black applicants. “Percent” in the first refers to ‘per hundred jobs to which one applies applies’ while in the second it refers to ‘per 100 jobs to which a Black person applies’.

  7. John Horstman says

    Indeed, and this is why Affirmative Action programs are A Good Idea. They certainly do discriminate on an individual basis, which is necessary to counteract systemic bias (one that the Libertarian-leaning continue to deny despite pretty much every study demonstrating what the one above does) that cannot be corrected any other way (we can’t magically correct subconscious biases, and changes in culture require an active effort over an extended period of time; in fact, things like anti-discrimination or Affirmative Action laws/programs are one of the things that can help change the cultural construction/perception of a group).

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